After an earthquake shattered Haiti’s capital on Jan. 12, 2010, the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war.
Before dawn the next morning, an Army unit was airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route. Within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 soldiers had arrived. More than 300 military helicopters buzzed overhead, delivering millions of pounds of food and water.
By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated island, an Army general told reporters Thursday. About 40 U.S. military helicopters were aiding in delivering food and water to the 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory.
No two disasters are alike. Each delivers customized violence that cannot be fully anticipated. But as criticism of the federal government’s initial response continued to mount Thursday, leaders of that humanitarian mission in Haiti said they were dismayed by the relative lack of urgency and military muscle in the initial federal response to Puerto Rico’s catastrophe.
FEMA DEFENDS ITS EFFORTS
“I think it’s a fair ask why we’re not seeing a similar command and response,” said retired Lt. Gen. P.K. “Ken” Keen, the three-star general who commanded the U.S. military effort in Haiti, where 200,000 people died by some estimates. “The morning after, the president said we were going to respond in Port-au-Prince … robustly and immediately, and that gave the whole government clarity of purpose.”
Rajiv Shah, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Haiti response, said he, too, was struggling to “understand the delays.”
“We were able to move more quickly in a foreign country, and with no warning because it was an earthquake, than a better-equipped agency was able to do in a domestic…