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Three-star general named to coordinate military's Puerto Rico relief efforts

W.J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Weather News

WASHINGTON -- A three-star military commander was named Thursday to manage Hurricane Maria relief efforts in devastated Puerto Rico.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, an Army infantry officer who served multiple tours in Iraq, is expected to take over at the island command headquarters set up in the convention center in San Juan, the capital. A one-star general arrived earlier in the week.

The Trump administration has been criticized for a slow and inadequate response to the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico just over a week ago, leaving the American island in ruins, without power and increasingly lacking in water and other basic necessities. The military effort is expected to expand in the coming days.

Having a commander who reports both to the governor and the military chain of command will create a "unified team" of military and civilian disaster response units, Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration during the Obama administration, said in a phone interview.

A dual-status commander can marshal U.S. military forces to help clear roads, move supplies and get crews into remote places to assist in fixing the electrical grid, coordinating with public agencies and private utilities.

Fugate noted that the relief effort is hampered by a bottleneck of supplies at the Port of San Juan, and the dearth of passable roads, drivers and gasoline to move the water, food, fuel and other necessities to the communities that need them.

Those problems will not be alleviated by waiving the federal Jones Act so that foreign-flagged ships can freely transport more goods into Puerto Rico. Trump, who waived the act on Thursday, had been criticized for not doing so earlier.

His decision was "probably" more of a political one than an action to bring more aid to the island, Fugate said.

"You have all the armchair quarterbacks shouting out a lot of criticism," Fugate said. "Sometimes it is just more politically expedient to deal with it just to tamp down all the voices."

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