The Trump administration on Thursday promised a large increase in the number of federal personnel on the ground in Puerto Rico, noting it still has a significant amount of short and long-term work ahead of it to help the hurricane-ravaged island.
Federal agencies have already deployed 14,000 personnel to the island and the U.S. Virgin Islands to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it plans to expand those numbers going forward. Most of those already deployed came from the Defense Department, which has sent 9,000 individuals to assist in the recovery. FEMA itself has sent 700 employees, while the remainder have come from agencies across government.
“We are going to branch out,” FEMA Deputy Coordinating Officer Tito Hernandez told reporters on Thursday. Assistance personnel “are going to grow in number from DoD and all agencies.”
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long, who previously called the Maria response effort the “most logistically challenging event” in U.S. history, said this week his agency would be in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “for years.”
The agency, dealing with the destruction wrought by hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey, is currently spending $200 million per day on activities funded by its Disaster Relief Fund. President Trump on Wednesday asked Congress for an emergency supplement of nearly $13 billion to support those efforts. Congress last month approved $15 billion in emergency funding after Harvey, which was split between FEMA’s disaster fund and Housing and Urban Development Community Block Development Grants. The disaster fund saw an additional $6.7 billion deposit on Oct.1 due to a scheduled increase for the new fiscal year.
Federal responders in Puerto Rico are currently focusing on providing food and commodities, reopening hospitals and providing generator support. Boosting communications is also a priority, Hernandez said, but presents a much longer-term problem because antennas in the island’s mountain ranges were destroyed. A Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, has arrived at Puerto Rico and is now receiving patients.
In addition to Defense and FEMA, the departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Energy; other Homeland Security components such as Customs and Border Protection; the Environmental Protection Agency; and others continue to provide assistance in Puerto Rico.
While it is already dealing with three disaster response efforts, FEMA is already preparing for the next one. Nate, which officials say could reach hurricane strength by the time it reaches U.S. land this weekend, is set to hit parts of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.