In hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, a stunning silence

Chris Gillette reports for the Associated Press: I was stunned as I walked through the darkened and humid arrivals terminal at San Juan’s International Airport two days after Hurricane Maria blasted its way across Puerto Rico.

It was quiet. No military air traffic control units on the tarmac directing planeloads of aid supplies, no bustling command center sending convoys of trucks to hard-hit areas. No mountains of relief goods stacked and ready to be deployed where needed.

There were a couple of airport employees mopping the still-damp floors of the terminal, the only sign of life in the vast space.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency guy stood at the curb smoking a cigarette as I came out looking for my ride, and we struck up a conversation. The man who gave his name as John said he and a crew from FEMA had been pre-positioned at the Intercontinental Hotel before the storm.

He told me they had spent the night moving from room to room as the ferocious winds tore chunks off the building. They ended up in the stairwell, which he said “was like a waterfall, the water gushing down the stairs like class 5 rapids.”

“Where,” I asked, “is the cavalry?” ″This is it,” he replied, pointing to several dozen National Guard pilots and support people, along with several dozen local and federal officials milling around the Forward Operations Base near the civilian terminal of the airport.

I covered Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010, among many natural disasters over the course of 30 years in journalism.

Disasters on the scale of Hurricane Maria are usually marked by the inspiring sight of thousands of military and federal emergency personnel flooding into the affected area.

Navy ships offshore, dozens of helicopters and cargo planes flying overhead, military convoys heading into affected areas with supplies and repair crews.

The only traffic on the still flooded highways that Friday consisted of civilians looking for gas, food, water or loved ones in the wake of the storm.

Twenty-thousand troops were sent into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and surrounding areas. Thousands of foreign aid workers rushed into Haiti after the earthquake there leveled Port-Au-Prince, the capital. Within three days of that quake, the U.S. had dispatched some half-dozen ships and 5,500 soldiers and Marines.

In San Juan on Sept. 22, the only sign of relief efforts were beleaguered Puerto Rican government employees struggling to address the multitude of problems confronting the devastated island, while coping with their own losses from the storm. [Continue reading…]

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