Army Veteran Says Puerto Rico Needs 50,000 U.S. Troops

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Power is still out. Drinking water is in short supply. And a week after Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico are wondering how long they will have to live like this. Edwin Rivera (ph) lost his home in the mountain town of Aibonito, and he is using the local river to bathe. He says people need a lot.

EDWIN RIVERA: Gas, food, medicine - waiting for everything - long lines.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Yesterday FEMA administrator Brock Long said the federal government would send thousands more federal troops and 10 more barges and ships loaded with supplies, including the U.S. Navy's hospital ship the Comfort. The Defense Department is also deploying a brigadier general to manage the response. Phillip Carter, who served in the U.S. Army and is now with the Center for a New American Security, says an even larger military force should be deployed - as many as 50,000 servicemembers.

PHILLIP CARTER: These aren't combat troops. What Puerto Rico really needs right now are support troops who can build tent cities and run power generators and help augment the staffs of hospitals or run military hospitals like MASH units. That's what Puerto Rico needs. So those kinds of support units are on the way, but they're not fully there yet.

SIEGEL: And we have that kind of spare capacity in the armed services to do that right now.

CARTER: There is the spare capacity in the military. One challenge is that a lot of that capacity resides in the reserve components - the National Guard and the Army Reserve primarily. So you can't just snap your fingers and call those folks up. It takes at least a few days, if not a few weeks, to get those folks deployed.

SIEGEL: Earlier this week you were critical of the federal response, calling the FEMA mission anemic. President Trump has said they're doing a great job. Are things any more on track now than they were when you wrote what you did?

CARTER: So it's not clear President Trump has his eye on this ball. But setting that issue aside, the Defense Department is doing a lot more than it was even 48 hours ago. The commandant of the Coast Guard flew down there and got his eyes on. I think that's significant. Other senior defense leaders have filtered into the area to also make their assessments.

The Pentagon does everything with great deliberation. And in this case, the Pentagon is running the same playbook, which is to measure twice and cut once. The drawback to that is that people are on the ground suffering now. They need help now, and the delay could cost lives.

SIEGEL: After a terrible storm in Florida, Texas or, as I recall, in Louisiana, people descend on the area in trucks. Puerto Rico is an island. How much is that determining what's happening or not happening there now?

CARTER: Puerto Rico's geography is a huge factor here. The isolation of the country, the inability to lean over to your neighboring state or county and ask for mutual aid really makes this a unique emergency, and it really calls on the U.S. military which has this unique ability to deploy somewhere by air or sea with a ton of logistics capability.

SIEGEL: As for the military, is there any legal difference between the responsibility to Puerto Rico as opposed to a U.S. state in the mainland?

CARTER: There's no legal difference. These are American citizens. But frankly if this were Haiti, as it was seven years ago, the U.S. government could choose to respond there, too. I think we have a duty to American citizens, but there's no legal distinction that matters for deploying U.S. military personnel to Puerto Rico versus Florida or Texas.

SIEGEL: Here's a slightly bigger question. If in fact a warmer Caribbean is what has contributed to the terribly powerful storms that have come ashore this year and if that's going to be a more common feature of life in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, should there be some permanent military responsibility for looking out for where the next disaster is going to come in that part of the world?

CARTER: So that's a great question, and in fact the National Guard and a number of other parts of the Defense Department have begun doing exercises, begun to prepare for this contingency. What you suggest, though, is something they haven't done yet, which is actually prepare forces to be ready for these kinds of things and specially equipped for them, to have, for example, disaster response units as opposed to combat units that do this as a sort of secondary job. That's a kind of thinking that parts of the Pentagon have considered, but it hasn't become the sort of mainstream mission for the force yet.

SIEGEL: Phillip Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, thanks for talking with us.

CARTER: Thank you.

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