General who handled Hurricane Katrina slams Trump on Puerto Rico crisis

'It’s kind of like Katrina: We got it. We got it. Oh, s**t, send in the cavalry'

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Thursday 28 September 2017 21:47 BST
More than half of the population is without access to clean drinking water
More than half of the population is without access to clean drinking water (AP)

The general widely considered to have turned around the government’s flailing response to Hurricane Katrina, has blasted the Trump’s administration handling of the crisis confronting Puerto Rico.

Russel Honore, who in 2005 was asked by President George W Bush to tackle the aftermath of the storm that tore into New Orleans and killed more than 1,800 people, said more people and emergency equipment should have been sent to the island in advance of Hurricane Maria.

With the island of 3.4m people having suffered so much damage, the government should also have made greater use of the military he said.

“It’s kind of like Katrina: We got it. We got it. Oh, s**t, send in the cavalry,” Mr Honore told Bloomberg News. “This is a hit on White House decision making.”

The comments of the former general, who stood down in 2008, are the latest criticism directed at Donald Trump and what has appeared to be his slow response to the crisis, that has left virtually all the island without power and with shortages of fuel, food and clean drinking water.

Mr Trump said tweeted late on Thursday that first responders are doing a "great job" and that Puerto Rico had been "devasted" making co-ordinating a response difficult.

However, outside the Puerto Rico capital San Juan, people are calling for more help.

“I have not received any help, and we ran out of food yesterday,” Mari Olivo, a 27-year-old homemaker told the Associated Press. Her husband was pushing a shopping cart with empty plastic gallon jugs while their two children, 9 and 7, each toted a large bucket. They stood in line in a parking lot in the town of Bayamon on the hard-hit northern coast, where local police used hoses to fill up containers from a city water truck.

“I have not seen any federal help around here,” said Javier San Miguel, a 51-year-old accountant.

Mr Honore said only the military had the ability to move supplies quickly onto the island as many ports remained closed. As a result, the situation required so-called “expeditionary logistics” that involved specialised ships, aircraft and other equipment.

Puerto Rico mayor weeps on TV: "The worst fear is that we cannot get to everyone in time"

“The model you want is what was done in Florida [before Hurricane Irma] where every town had National Guard in it” opening shelters and helping direct traffic.

Mr Honore, who now runs a consulting firm, said he would send 50,000 troops to Puerto Rico, where he said the devastation was worse than what New Orleans dealt with after Katrina.

Russel Honore
Russel Honore (Getty)

“They need to scale up. In Katrina, I had 20,000 federal troops. Not federal workers, federal troops,” he said.

“I had 20 ships and over 240 helicopters. And Puerto Rico is bigger than Katrina.”

His comments came as the Pentagon announced Brig Gen Jeffrey Buchanan would oversee the military response in Puerto Rico.

Mr Honore, who retired in 2008, said Mr Buchanan was the right man for the job, but thought the appointment came too late.

“His headquarters exists 365 days a year, just for this mission,” said Mr Honore. “It took us eight days to mobilise him to tell him to come do it.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said it had 600 workers in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. It said given out more than 4m meals and 1.7m gallons of water.

“The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site,” Mr Trump tweeted earlier in the day.

Adminsitration officials also sought to back Mr Trump and the government response to the crisis. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke declared that “the relief effort is under control.”

“It is really a good news story, in terms of our ability to reach people,” she told reporters in the White House driveway.

But it is clear that it is not yet enough for many - with 44 per cent of Puerto Rico's residents being left without clean water.

“The federal response has been a disaster,” said legislator Jose Enrique Melendez, a member of Governor Ricardo Rossello's New Progressive Party. “It's been really slow.”

He said the Trump administration had focused more on making a good impression on members of the media gathered at San Juan's convention centre than bringing aid to rural Puerto Rico.

Earlier this week, a Senate hearing called to discuss “worldwide threats” - including Isis and domestic terrorism, was dominated by Republican and Democratic legislators questioning Ms Duke about the adequacy of the response.

“There is food and water on the island, there is gasoline on the island,” she said. “The challenge for us is getting it distributed.”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has praised the federal response but also said it could do better. “I am very pleased with the consideration the president has given to Puerto Rico,” Mr Rossello told the New York Times. “However, we still need more, and the president understands that.”

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