Puerto Rico recovery effort likely to take years and cost billions

The Trump administration is continuing its efforts to aid Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which struck last week as a category 4 storm and left the entire island without electricity, short of food and water and with a severely damaged infrastructure. While the U.S. continues to send aid and troops, it’s really just beginning a recovery effort that likely to take years and cost billions.

Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke told reporters Thursday that 90 percent of the island is now accessible and 44 of the 69 hospitals on the island are operational. Two hundred gas stations are up and running, and 10,000 federal officers, including 7,200 troops, are involved in the aid effort. 

The main issue, they said, was the distribution of goods on the island.

If President Trump’s initial assessment of the rescue and relief efforts in Puerto Rico was overly rosy — he said this week that “we’re doing a great job,” and “everybody has said it’s amazing the job we have done in Puerto Rico” — the gravity of the situation has sunk in among top U.S. officials close to the planning efforts, CBS News’ Jeff Pegues reports.

There is an acknowledgement that this will be a long and hard rebuilding effort “that will take years.” Administration officials have not yet put a dollar figure on the amount of money it will take but expect that it will be in the billions of dollars. In the short term, U.S. officials say they have the money they need to continue operations.

Officials say the priority is still to save lives and that they are still in rescue mode. Next (and it’s not clear when the next phase will begin) will come the life-sustaining chapter of the recovery: they will be trying to get people out of harm’s way and give them food and shelter. 

After that comes the focus on restoration. This will also be a major challenge in an area that had a “troubled” infrastructure prior to the hurricane. For example, in some of the ports, cranes are operating on generators, which means they are operating at half capacity. 

The USNS Comfort, a Mercy-class hospital ship with over 1,000 beds, will be deploying to Puerto Rico Friday. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said that the Comfort was not sent earlier because there was “no need,” and that it was deemed to be safer to keep patients in hospitals rather than the move them.

A Navy officer told CBS News’ David Martin that the Comfort was expecting orders to go last week but then was told over the weekend it wouldn’t be needed. 

Most of the medical staff is regularly assigned to the Navy Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, but some come from as far away as San Diego, so it’s not as simple as just casting off the lines from the pier. As a practical matter, this officer says, the turbulent state of the seas due to Maria would have prevented it from getting to the island much earlier, even if it had received its order last week. 

President Trump will be visiting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3. 

CBS News’ Jeff Pegues, Margaret Brennan, Jillian Hughes and David Martin contributed to this story

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Source: CBS News – Politics

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