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The general who turned around the response in New Orleans after Katrina thinks we're failing Puerto Rico

“Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina.”

Recovery Efforts Continue In Aftermath Of Hurricane Katrina
US President George W. Bush (R) talks with US Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore on the flight deck of the USS Iwo Jima September 20, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If there’s anyone who understands how to run relief operations after major disasters in the United States, it’s retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré. He’s credited with turning around the Bush administration’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005 after criticism mounted that storm victims were being left to die.

On Thursday, Honoré weighed in on NPR on the crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and the government’s response so far. According to Honoré, Puerto Rico is much worse off than New Orleans was: “Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,” he told Rachel Martin on Morning Edition. “And we had 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships, and 40,000 National Guard.”

But the Trump administration has not stepped up with the necessary support yet, which is reminiscent of the days following Katrina when people were crying for help and the government was hesitating to respond.

“The force is only about 2,200 federal troops in support of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as of yesterday” — but it should be at least double that, he said, noting that the slow military response to the island is reminiscent of Katrina.

There are logistical problems that impede a quick response in Puerto Rico, mainly because of geography. “This is more difficult to respond to because you got about 1,200 miles of ocean between the East Coast of the United States and Puerto Rico,” Honoré said. “It makes it pretty difficult to get there — it takes time with ships — and we started moving about four days too late.” New Orleans, of course, is part of the US mainland, so access and communications were much easier.

President Donald Trump made a similar point about the logistical problems but was widely mocked for his characterization of Puerto Rico’s place in the Caribbean Sea.

The island’s most pressing needs include fuel to run hospitals or potable water to drink. “You need at least 50 to 80 helicopters in there,” Honoré believes, in order to properly distribute those resources to reeling citizens.

Trump has received a lot of criticism for his slow response to Puerto Rico. Perhaps some advice from Honoré will help.