Damage in Puerto Rico strains relief efforts by agencies

WASHINGTON — Federal agencies grappled Saturday with the vast scale of the disaster in Puerto Rico left by Hurricane Maria, the third major storm to strike the U.S. in less than a month.

Three days after the massive hurricane crossed the U.S. territory, towns remained without fresh water, fuel, power or phone service.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said meals and water and supplies were being delivered to the island and that some airports were reopening. But it was not clear how quickly relief would reach people, and fully restoring power and communications was expected to take some time.

"This is going to be a long and frustrating process for everybody. There is tremendous damage on the island," said William Booher, director of public affairs for FEMA.

Booher said there was no difference in the agency's response in Puerto Rico, compared with Texas, Louisiana and Florida after recent hurricanes. FEMA has had sufficient resources to deal with back-to-back-to-back hurricanes, he said, adding that "we've been able to address each one of them."

Still, while FEMA officials train to respond to more than one disaster at once, three blows in the space of a few weeks offered a monumental challenge. Booher said there were about 5,000 emergency personnel in Puerto Rico, including some staff permanently assigned to the island.

President Donald Trump has issued disaster declarations for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He visited Texas, Louisiana and Florida in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but he had not yet traveled to Puerto Rico, though he has said he plans to make the trip.

"We're going to start it with great gusto, but it's in very, very, very perilous shape. Very sad what happened to Puerto Rico," Trump said before a meeting at the U.N. General Assembly.

FEMA said Saturday that round-the-clock efforts were underway to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Several airports were opened to help bring in goods and personnel. Ships and barges carrying meals, water, generators and other supplies were making their way to the islands, with more supplies being flown in. Sailors and marines in the region were conducting damage assessment flights, beach assessments and evacuating patients from a hospital in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Officials said 1,360 of the island's 1,600 cellphone towers were downed, and 85 percent of above-ground and underground phone and internet cables were knocked out.

Suggesting a long slog ahead, the Energy Department said in a statement that roads in Puerto Rico must be cleared before emergency responders can assess damage and "from there, the work of power restoration can begin." The department said Saturday that it had some emergency personnel on the island during the storm who were being redeployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands, but added that emergency responders would be in Puerto Rico "as soon as conditions permit."

Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Derek P. Rydholm said at the Pentagon on Friday that the military was flying in mobile communications systems. Still, he acknowledged that based on the volume of power outages, it would be some time before people in Puerto Rico would be able to communicate with people outside the island.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had more than 120 responders on the islands. Their work included temporary power, temporary roofing, infrastructure assessments and debris removal. And the National Guard Bureau had more than 1,600 service members offering support on both islands.

In the wake of Maria, FEMA headquarters emailed daily statements outlining efforts to get resources to the island. But there were none of the high-profile, on-camera briefings offered with FEMA Administrator Brock Long, and other top officials in Washington, as there had been in the days after Harvey and Irma.

Booher said there was no shift in strategy and that "we continually evaluate how we can get that messaging out."