General Who Turned Around Katrina Response Criticizes Puerto Rico Efforts

  • Government hasn’t learned lessons of past storms, Honore says
  • U.S. ‘has to be prepared to handle three Category 4 storms’

General Who Led Katrina Response Criticizes Trump

The general credited with turning around the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 said the Trump administration is bungling its efforts in Puerto Rico.

Russel Honore, a lieutenant general named to oversee Katrina operations by then-President George W. Bush, joined a growing chorus of criticism from Congress about the response to Hurricane Maria.

"It’s kind of like Katrina: We got it. We got it. Oh, s--t, send in the cavalry," Honore, now retired from the military, said in an interview Wednesday. "This is a hit on White House decision making."

He said more people and equipment should have been sent to the island in advance of the storm, and the Department of Defense should be given far greater authority over the response.

Only the military has the ability to move supplies quickly onto the island as many ports remain closed, he said -- what he called "expeditionary logistics," a mix of specialized ships, aircraft and other equipment that the National Guard can’t match. Before the storm hit, the federal government should have positioned more personnel in Puerto Rico, he said. 

A week after Maria slammed into the U.S. commonwealth, most of the island’s 3.4 million residents still lack electricity, and just 11 of 69 hospitals have fuel or power. That’s increasingly putting the administration on the defensive as the humanitarian crisis grows.

Related: Puerto Ricans Drive Around for Phone Signals a Week After Storm

Much of a Senate hearing Wednesday called to discuss “worldwide threats” -- including Islamic State, domestic terrorism and cybersecurity -- was taken up instead by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers questioning Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke about the adequacy of the response.

“There is food and water on the island, there is gasoline on the island,” Duke said in response to questions. “The challenge for us is getting it distributed.”

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that Brigadier General Rich Kim was being sent to the island to establish a joint forces headquarters to support the response.

The U.S. government has thousands of staff, including 600 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to FEMA. It has provided 4.4 million meals, 6.5 million liters of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting to the islands. The release said FEMA and the Defense Logistics Agency are moving more than 300 generators, and the Navy and Marine Corps are trying to get generator fuel to hospitals. FEMA’s search and rescue teams report having rescued 557 people and five pets.

After Democratic lawmakers said Trump was slow to respond to the crisis, the president told reporters Tuesday that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have “been devastated, absolutely devastated, by Hurricane Maria, and we’re doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people of both places.”

Earlier: Trump Weighs Easing Ship Restrictions to Get Aid to Puerto Rico

An email to the White House press office asking for comment about Honore’s criticism wasn’t immediately returned.

"It’s wholly inadequate," said Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz, a Florida Democrat. "Why we don’t have a Katrina level response mobilizing and gearing up is absolutely beyond me. This is as dire at that was."

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has both praised the federal response and insisted it needs to do better. "I am very pleased with the consideration the president has given to Puerto Rico," Rossello told the New York Times. "However, we still need more, and the president understands that."

A Louisiana native, Honore won national acclaim when he took over the Bush administration’s flailing response to Katrina. He didn’t hesitate to criticize what he viewed as a bad idea, often in colorful language. Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans at the time, called him "one John Wayne dude."

Honore now runs a consulting business, helping organizations "develop a culture of preparedness and problem solving."

He said the administration wasn’t adequately prepared before Maria hit.

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"The model you want is what was done in Florida" before Hurricane Irma, he said, where "every town had National Guard in it" -- opening shelters, helping direct traffic and doing similar tasks.

Trump should direct the military’s Northern Command, created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to respond to major disasters in the U.S., to take charge of the response, Honore said.

A spokesman for Northern Command, Lieutenant Commander Joe Nawrocki, said it can’t take over the response without either a request from the governor of Puerto Rico or an order from the president. And he said that having the military in charge of a recovery operation can scare people.

"The power of the uniform can be both positive and negative," Nawrocki said in a phone interview.

"Me standing on the sidewalk with a gun," he said, "can send the wrong message."

Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA for eight years under President Barack Obama, agreed with Honore that the U.S. has yet to learn the lessons of past storms. But he said the solution wasn’t to bring in the Army.

"Too many people seem to think the military’s the solution to every problem," Fugate said Wednesday. "You’re writing everybody’s disaster novel of militarization and authoritarian regimes."

The better solution, according to Fugate, is not building in a way that leaves homes and infrastructure so vulnerable to hurricanes in the first place.

On this point, Honore agreed: The U.S. needs to stop assuming that hurricane seasons like this one will be the exception.

"The government has to be prepared now to handle three Category 4 storms a year," Honore said. "The government cannot depend that next year will be a slow year."

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