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Millions In Puerto Rico Still Lack Food, Clean Water Or Electricity


U.S. Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan is on the line to talk about Puerto Rico. He is leading the U.S. military's recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's in San Juan, and he's on the line. General, good morning.

JEFFREY BUCHANAN: Good morning. Before I make any statements or answer your questions, I just want to - I just want to say that I'm thinking this morning of the people of Las Vegas, the people who were there as tourists, you know, it's a terrible tragedy. And, you know, it reminds me that - of our law enforcement personnel, our emergency medical technicians, our firefighters who may have responded. These are the true heroes of our country. And sometimes it's a shame, but it takes incidents like this to remind us all of that.

INSKEEP: Thanks for those remarks, and our colleague Scott Detrow's right. That's going to dominate the conversation, but I don't want to lose sight of what you're doing in Puerto Rico and what people are going through in Puerto Rico. Bottom line question - do you have the resources that you need to help more than three million people?

BUCHANAN: They're on their way, and this is what I can say - we're built - rapidly building up our response capability. You know, when I - when I first got here Thursday night, we had about 25 helicopters, about 4,000 troops. Right now, we've got 44 helicopters, more than 7,000 troops. And this is only the military effort. Of course - of course, we're here to support FEMA, and we're all working in support of the governor of the commonwealth.

INSKEEP: Keeping in mind...

BUCHANAN: And there are many more troops and helicopters on the way.

INSKEEP: That's what I want to ask about - keeping in mind that it takes days, it takes a while, to move people to an island, to move thousands of people to an island with all their equipment. We had Russel Honore on the program the other day. He, of course, led relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. And he said they had a much bigger military presence for Hurricane Katrina than with Puerto Rico but that Puerto Rico is a bigger problem. Is he right? Are you on the way to the right number of troops and other personnel?

BUCHANAN: I do believe we're on the way. You know, everything that I am asking for - the entire Department of Defense, U.S. northern command under General Lori Robinson, they're all behind me, and I've been denied absolutely nothing that we're asking for.

INSKEEP: What is your impression as you look around the portions of the island that you've been able to see, General?

BUCHANAN: It's just devastating. You know, the - I was the joint force land component commander in support of Texas for Harvey as well. We had a terrible incident there with flooding. But the problem here is different - just tremendous wind damage. The eye of the storm went all the way across the island, so trees are down everywhere, power lines are down. And, you know, it's been a major effort to open ports and to clear roadways, and we're doing fairly well with sea and airports being open, with roads around the perimeter of the island, but we've got a long ways to go for the interior.

INSKEEP: General, I have to ask about the president of the United States because he spent the last couple of days in a war of words on Twitter and elsewhere with the mayor of San Juan, saying that she has been told by Democrats to get him and calling Puerto Ricans ingrates - that's the word the president used - he wrote down in a tweet. I'd just like to know on a factual basis. You're there. You're the representative of the federal government. What have your relations been like with local officials?

BUCHANAN: Well, my partnership with both FEMA and the governor of the commonwealth has been outstanding. We're working together as a team to help the people. That's what we're really here for - save lives and help the people get back on their feet.

INSKEEP: You're saying that local officials are working with federal officials, that there's some cooperation going on.

BUCHANAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And what do you think is going to need to improve? What actually - let me ask it a different way. What can improve, say, in the next 24-48 hours? What are the next steps for you?

BUCHANAN: Well, we've got to continue to clear routes and continue to distribute supplies. We're really talking about fuel, food and water. And again, our biggest challenge right now is on the interior of the island. Because we don't have roads open, because there's so many trees down, we're trying to clear those routes. But in the meantime, we're dependent on air - much of that is military air - to actually move that fuel, food and water to places that desperately need it.

INSKEEP: Do you think, general, given the lack of communications and the roads being closed as you said that there are parts of the island that you literally haven't heard from that, you don't even know what you're going to find?

BUCHANAN: We do. We do think that there are places that we're just not aware of how bad the problem is. But on the positive side, we're putting liaisons in every one of the 69 hospitals across the island. And this is one of our - you know, again, saving lives is our major focus. So we have we have troops in each of these hospitals. We will have by tonight all with ham radios so that we're not dependent on local telecommunications so that we can really understand what's going on and get the help to where it's needed.

INSKEEP: Well, General Buchanan, I appreciate hearing from you and hearing you say that you worked on Harvey and now worked on this reminds us that you're probably not the only one who's had a very busy hurricane season. Thanks for your work.

BUCHANAN: Thanks, David.

INSKEEP: That's U.S. Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan. By the way, President Trump has now tweeted about the shooting in Las Vegas, saying my warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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