“It’s picture perfect devastation. The hurricane came through the middle of the island. 100% of the island is without power. As a Puerto Rican it troubles me to hear the misinformation about the crux of the issue.”
Speaking today exclusively and live from Puerto Rico, is Puerto Rican born and raised, Colonel Michael A. Valle (”Torch”), Commander, 101st Air and Space Operations Group, and Director of the Joint Air Component Coordination Element, 1st Air Force, responsible for Hurricane Maria relief efforts in the U.S. commonwealth with a population of more than 3 million. Since the ‘apocalyptic’ Cat 4 storm tore into the spine of Puerto Rico on September 20, Col. Valle has been both duty and blood bound to help.
Col. Valle is a firsthand witness of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) response supporting FEMA in Puerto Rico, and as a Puerto Rican himself with family members living in the devastation, his passion for the people is second to none. “It’s just not true,” Col. Valle says of the major disconnect today between the perception of a lack of response from Washington verses what is really going on on the ground. “I have family here. My parents’ home is here. My uncles, aunts, cousins, are all here. As a Puerto Rican, I can tell you that the problem has nothing to do with the U.S. military, FEMA, or the DoD.”
“The aid is getting to Puerto Rico. The problem is distribution. The federal government has sent us a lot of help; moving those supplies, in particular, fuel, is the issue right now,” says Col. Valle. Until power can be restored, generators are critical for hospitals and shelter facilities and more. But, and it’s a big but, they can’t get the fuel to run the generators.
They have the generators, water, food, medicine, and fuel on the ground, yet the supplies are not moving across the island as quickly as they’re needed.
“It’s a lack of drivers for the transport trucks, the 18 wheelers. Supplies we have. Trucks we have. There are ships full of supplies, backed up in the ports, waiting to have a vehicle to unload into. However, only 20% of the truck drivers show up to work. These are private citizens in Puerto Rico, paid by companies that are contracted by the government,” says Col. Valle.
Put another way, 80% of truck drivers do not show up to work, and yet again, it’s important to understand why.
“There should be zero blame on the drivers. They can’t get to work, the infrastructure is destroyed, they can’t get fuel themselves, and they can’t call us for help because there’s no communication. The will of the people of Puerto Rico is off the charts. The truck drivers have families to take care of, many of them have no food or water. They have to take care of their family’s needs before they go off to work, and once they do go, they can’t call home,” explains Col. Valle.
It’s a dilemma with dependent conditions. The citizens need fuel and supplies brought in by relief efforts. The truck drivers who move the fuel and supplies from ports and airstrips need fuel and traversable roads—and before anything else they need supplies for their own families.
In one effort to get more drivers out, Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico has temporarily waved some hazardous materials requirements for truck transportation. Additionally, some truck drivers from outside the island have been brought in, and more are coming, however it’s not a fix-all. “We get more and more offers to help, but there is no where to stay, we can’t take any more bodies, there’s no where to put them.” Col. Valle says, adding that their “air mobility” is good, and reiterating that getting more supplies or manpower is not the issue.
When asked three times what else Washington can do to help, or anyone for that matter, three times Col. Valle answered, “It’s going to take time.”
Col. Valle shared much about what they are doing for relief efforts, it’s extensive, including the sort of things that you don’t hear in the news like offering free flights on empty military cargo planes returning to the U.S. for military members stationed in Puerto Rico who want to get out.
Yesterday, Col. Valle was in a meeting with Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló and Florida Governor Rick Scott, who travelled to Puerto Rico to see how he could help. Col. Valle says, “Governor Scott offered any and all resources available to help. His support is incredible, as has been the support from all levels of government, FEMA, and all entities. Yes, people are in need of food and water and medical supplies and power; I personally know the people here and they are very grateful for what we are doing. I’m passionate and I’m proud of the response. We did the same response for Hurricane Irma in Florida as for Puerto Rico with Maria.”