WASHINGTON – Federal and military aid for Puerto Rico increased Tuesday, including news that the hospital ship Comfort would be deployed, as officials got a clearer picture of the obscene destruction Hurricane Maria wrought on the U.S. territory.
What federal officials visiting the island have found: 42 percent of Puerto Rico’s population is without drinking water. Eighty percent of the island’s electrical transmission system ― its substations and transmission lines ― and 100 percent of its distribution system was damaged by the storm, said Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
As of late Tuesday, 21 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals had some functionality. The remaining 48 hospitals had an unknown status, Davis said.
The U.S. government is now increasing its response to the storm and naming a commander to lead the military effort.
U.S. Northern Command announced late Tuesday it would identify “and the Joint Staff will source, a larger sustainment force package” to expand aid to the island. In addition, NORTHCOM is going to “establish a Land Component Commander - Forward in Puerto Rico and will have that commander on the ground there within 24 hours.”
On Tuesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long told reporters at the White House that it was dispatching the Navy hospital ship Comfort, a converted super tanker with 1,000 beds, 12 operating rooms, a CAT-scan, and radiology capabilities to Puerto Rico.
On Tuesday the Navy said it would have the Comfort underway within the next 96 hours.
The top priorities of deploying the Comfort are “to minimize suffering and protecting the lives and safety of those affected by Hurricane Maria,” Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Allen, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said Tuesday. “Moving the USNS Comfort is a prudent decision in light of current conditions on ground. We will make best possible speed and anticipate it will take up to five days to transit to the area upon departure from Naval Station Norfolk.”
The Comfort is currently docked in Norfolk, Va.
When it arrives, the ship will join the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and landing dock ship Oak Hill. Those ships are already supporting search and rescue efforts and helping with route clearance on Puerto Rico, Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million residents, who are American citizens.
President Donald Trump, who will be traveling to Puerto Rico next week to see the damage first hand, defended the U.S. efforts to date. Trump said he had been praised by local officials for the relief that has gotten through, and suggested additional Navy ships would be sent soon.
“We’ll be deploying Navy ships. And we are going to do far more than anybody else would ever be able to do and it is being recognized as such but it is a tough situation,” Trump said at a White House press conference Tuesday with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey.
In the short term, FEMA, U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, National Guard troops and other relief workers were working on getting immediate needs addressed on the island. Those needs include establishing communications and medical care and increasing the number of aircraft that can take off and depart from Puerto Rico.
FEMA is delivering 350 satellite phones and DOD “is sourcing FEMA requirements for additional medical support including, for [Puerto Rico] a medical [and] surgical treatment facility with 50-bed inpatient care, ground [and] rotary ambulances, five medical teams and airlift for civilian ambulance,” Davis said.
DOD teams also restored radar and control tower capabilities in Puerto Rico to increase the number of aircraft that can access the island.
NORTHCOM said the number of aircraft that can land in Puerto Rico should rise from three to six aircraft an hour to 10 an hour, and have as many as 240 planes coming in with aid and evacuation options within the next 24 hours.
As of Tuesday FEMA and other U.S. federal agencies have provided more than 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting to all of the areas affected by Hurricane Maria, according to a Tweet sent out by FEMA’s public affairs office.
Several training ships from the U.S. Maritime Service are also headed to Puerto Rico, some carrying more FEMA employees to the island.
Tara Copp is Pentagon Bureau Chief for the Military Times. Tcopp@mco.com On Twitter:@TaraCopp