Military

No, Trump Didn't Botch the Puerto Rico Crisis

A Q&A with former Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix on smart preparations the White House and Pentagon made for the looming storm.

Better late than never?

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

"Send in the cavalry."

That was the advice retired Army General Russel Honore gave President Donald Trump this week about responding to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. And Honore's opinion was well informed: In 2005, President George W. Bush sent him to bail out New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina's 30-foot storm surge overran its levees. And by Honore's judgment, Trump has fallen short: "This is a hit on White House decision making," he told Bloomberg News.

Plenty of others piled on, including a pair of Trump's 2016 presidential opponents:

"The logistics chain is broken and only the U.S. military can stand it up," insisted Florida Senator Marco Rubio. "And it is truly my hope that at some point in the next few hours the generals that are down there now, someone with ... two stars, or three stars on their shoulder, will be able to be the ultimate decision maker until we get basic logistics."

So, how fair were such criticisms?

Taken literally, Clinton's weren't. By the time she tweeted, the Navy had long been coordinating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several Marine amphibious ships were operating off the coast. However, it wasn’t until after her comment that the White House ordered that the Comfort, one of the Navy's two floating hospitals, head for the island. As for Rubio, we'll have to see how the logistical issues play out in the days ahead. 

But to look at the larger context of the entire relief operation, I decided to talk to someone whose experience rivals that of General Honore: retired Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix. Now a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, Hendrix served for decades both on the high seas and in high-level staff jobs, including with the Chief of Naval Operations' Executive Panel and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy's Irregular Warfare Quadrennial Defense Review. Few people know more about military history than Hendrix, who has degrees from Purdue, Harvard, the Naval Postgraduate School and a Ph.D. from Kings College in London. Little wonder that in 2012 was named the service's director of naval history.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion: 

Tobin Harshaw: Jerry, before we get to the immediate issue of Puerto Rico, why don't you give us a brief rundown of your own experience in the Navy with disaster relief.

Jerry Hendrix: Like virtually every sailor of the past century, going back to Theodore Roosevelt’s dispatch of the Great White Fleet to respond to a massive earthquake on the island of Sicily, I had several exposures to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations during my career. Perhaps the most instructive was when I served with Tactical Air Control Squadron 11 from 2005 to 2008. During that tour, the squadron provided detachments in response to earthquakes and volcano eruptions, including directing air operations in Kashmir following a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The devastation made the roads largely impassable to wheeled vehicles and at that altitude the air is so thin that helicopter cannot lift as many supplies with each flight.

Most of the time, our people operated from light amphibious carriers. But we also supplied detachments to the West Coast-based hospital ship USNS Mercy when she got underway in support of the planned Pacific Partnership summer exercise.

TH: So, it seems like everybody has blasted Trump administration's response to the Puerto Rico crisis. Has that criticism been fair?

JH: No, I don’t think so. First of all, there was a fair amount of anticipatory action that is not being recognized. Amphibious ships including the light amphibious carriers Kearsarge and Wasp and the amphibious landing ship dock Oak Hill were at sea and dispatched to Puerto Rico ahead of the hurricane’s impact.

These are large ships that have large flight decks to land and dispatch heavy-lift CH-53 helicopters to and from disaster sites. They also have big well-decks -- exposed surfaces that are lower than the fore and aft of the ship -- from which large landing craft can be dispatched to shore carrying over 150 tons of water, food and other supplies on each trip. These are actually the ideal platforms for relief operations owing to their range of assets. The ships, due to their designs to support Marine amphibious landings in war zones, also have hospitals onboard to provide medical treatment on a large scale. That these ships were in the area should be viewed as a huge positive for the administration and the Department of Defense.

TH: On the flip side, others say that sending the hospital ship Comfort was unnecessary -- purely symbolic and possibly counterproductive -- given that the number of hospital beds was not the problem. What's your opinion? 

JH: Comfort can add to the solution, but her lack of well-decks and large boats as well as her limited support of helicopter operations means that she has to go alongside a pier to be effective. In the immediate aftermath of a huge storm, pulling into a port that has not been surveyed for underwater obstacles like trees or cables or other refuse is an invitation to either put a hole your ship or foul your propellers or rudders.

That being said, there was a broad misunderstanding of the Comfort’s mission. She is not an “emergency response ship” but rather a hospital ship. She was built to accompany a large military force into a war zone as part of a buildup over time of capabilities to respond to wartime injuries. She is manned by military and civilian mariners as well as active and reserve medical personnel. It takes time to both man and equip her for sea. Given that there was no certainty where the hurricane would hit, it doesn’t make sense to have readied her prior to its impact.

It is revelatory of where the U.S. group mind is now that when the American public thinks about ships like the Comfort and Mercy, they automatically think of them as part of a civilian emergency response force rather than quietly considering the type of potential conflict that would require a hospital ship with 1,000 beds. I can tell you that when I think of those ships, I internally shudder at the thought of the type of conflict they were intended to support.

TH: Your plaudits toward the White House on all this are surprising to say the least. But where does the response still need to improve?

JH: One area in which the Trump administration could possibly lend additional assistance would be looking at a more robust activation of its assets in the Defense Department's Transportation Command to include more heavy-lift and cargo aircraft, as well as Maritime Administration shipping to move the logistics-heavy large infrastructure items on the ocean. Everything from bulldozers to transformers needs to come by ships, and it's been decades since it was really flexed to its full capacity. This would have the dual purpose of revealing any significant weaknesses in the Transportation Command assets and readiness should we need it in a military emergency down the road.

TH: Many critics feel that Florida and Houston had much better preparation before their storms hit this month. What could have been done better in advance in Puerto Rico, and what can be done in the rebuilding process to help minimize damage next time around?

JH: Puerto Rico is an island that suffers from its position in the middle of the Caribbean and its physical separation from the U.S. Its roads were in disrepair and its electrical grid was antiquated prior to the hurricane. The island has also suffered for years from ineffective local government and rising local territorial debt.

The Navy used to operate a large Navy base there, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads. I spent six months on the island in 1993, but when the island’s population protested the presence of the training range at nearby Vieques Island, the Navy shuttered the base, taking $300 million a year out of the Puerto Rican economy. I have no doubt that the federal government will be taking a hard look at large infrastructure investments and I hope that local governments look at building and general construction codes to make future buildings more hurricane survivable.

TH: What has been the most impressive crisis response/disaster relief operation undertaken by the Pentagon in recent decades? The tidal wave and nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan? The Indian Ocean typhoon?

JH: Without a doubt the Joint Force response to the 2004-05 earthquake and tsunami was the most massive and well-executed relief operation of my professional career. Virtually the entire U.S. Seventh Fleet under the leadership of Vice Admiral Doug Crowder responded with multiple carrier and amphibious strike groups. Water, food, medicine and other supplies flowed to and from disaster sites all over a vast geographical region. Crews worked for weeks on end to bring aid to people miles from the shoreline. The amount of coordination required was on the scale of a small war, and yet the supplies flowed both efficiently and effectively to where they were needed most.

TH: What other sorts of "soft power" can the Navy and other branches put an emphasis on going beyond reacting to disasters? Things like building roads and health facilities in the developing world?

JH: Exercises like the Pacific Partnership are superb for building good will. Navy SeaBees help to build school buildings and other administrative facilities with local tribal leaders. Wells are dug to provide fresh water and medical teams provide basic measles-mumps-rubella and polio vaccines, greatly decreasing child mortality rates in remote regions. These type of operations provide long-term benefits for the U.S. in regions where radical terrorism can easily take hold.

TH: Obviously, it takes years for military purchases to become reality. Just as we have to plan well in advance for the security threats of tomorrow, what acquisitions priorities should the Pentagon have now to prepare for the natural and human-made disasters of tomorrow?

JH: One of the frustrating comments I recently received was that the Navy should have had the Comfort manned and ready prior to these hurricanes. Given that it has been over a decade since the nation suffered a major hurricane-related disaster, the argument my friend was making suggested that we should man the hospital ships each year during the three-month hurricane season. This would have cost tens of millions of dollars each year at the same time the Navy is shrinking and has less money and time to man, train and equip its combat and regular naval presence force to meet its day-to-day tasks. We have had a ship grounded and three collisions in the western Pacific over the past few months, largely due to the strain we have placed the Navy under.

If people want the Navy to be more ready to respond to natural disasters, then they need a larger Navy that is more flexible and has the funding to train and maintain its ships.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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