NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Dozens of Port Authority personnel, including aviation specialists, are heading to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts.
About 70 Port Authority employees left Friday morning from JFK Airport. They joined 100 members of the New York State Police and National Guard.
“The biggest challenge is there’s no electricity. The second issue is there’s no gasoline,” said Gerard McCargty, the Port Authority’s director of emergency management. “We’re trying to overcome those one step at a time and working with our colleagues in Puerto Rico to do that.”
The aviation experts will help San Juan’s airport regain full capacity and flight operation. Port Authority staff will also assist with shipping logistics and getting supplies out to the island.
Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S territory of 3.4 million last week, wrecking the electricity grid and destroying homes and businesses. It is also blamed for 16 deaths on the island.
President Donald Trump said the federal government is “engaged fully” in the effort to help Puerto Rico recover from the storm.
“The disaster and the response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this,” the president said during a speech Friday in Washington. “This is an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.”
He said the U.S. has been forced to bring in truck drivers, security and other personnel “by the thousands” because local police and drivers are busy taking care of their families.
“We’ve never seen a situation like this. The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape,” Trump said. “They were at their life’s end prior to the hurricane and now virtually everything has been wiped out.”
Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Homeland Security, landed in Puerto Rico on Friday. She praised the resilience of Puerto Ricans and said daunting work lies ahead to help recover from the hurricane.
“There is so much more to do,” she said. “We will never be satisfied. That is why we are here.”
On Thursday, Duke described the relief effort as “under control” and called the federal response to the disaster a “good news story.”
But the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, argued otherwise.
“Well maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good news story,” she said. “When you are drinking from the creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story.”
Under Pentagon orders, 3-star Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan arrived on the island Thursday night to oversee the roughly 17,000 federal workers and troops already there who are trying to rebuild, restore power and distribute necessities.
The Navy’s hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, begins its five day journey to Puerto Rico later Friday to bring much needed medical help.
Another hurdle to climb is damaged communication systems. U.S. Marines are working to clear debris to make their way to a downed cell phone tower.
“You see us getting to critical infrastructure, such as FAA towers,” said Lt. Col. Marcus Mainz. “As soon as we can get those up, the more lifesaving aid can come in.”
FEMA says just 25 percent of telecommunications on the island have been restored. Cell phone providers are also working on their towers, but there is still no reliable communications systems on this island.
Many residents on the island also don’t have running water, so Marines are using a filtration system to convert salt water to clean, drinkable water. It produces 150 gallons per hour.
On Thursday, the White House announced the Federal Disaster Relief Fund will get a boost of nearly $7 billion by the end of the week to help Puerto Rico.
Trump also waived the Jones Act on Thursday, a federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports.
But debris-filled roads and a shortage of truck drivers make distributing those supplies to the hardest-hit areas difficult. At San Juan’s port, thousands of shipping containers filled with essentials are waiting to be shared.
The president plans on visiting the island next Tuesday.
Friday morning, Trump tweeted: “Thank you to FEMA, our great Military & all First Responders who are working so hard, against terrible odds, in Puerto Rico. See you Tuesday!”
Newark is also sending police, firefighters and emergency management personnel to Puerto Rico to help with relief efforts.
Newark’s Public Safety Department says it will deploy emergency personnel in three teams and coordinate efforts with the New Jersey State Police.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)