Military: ‘High’ potential for government failure in Puerto Rico

A military intelligence assessment warned days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico of a “high” potential for government failure on the island, new documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee reveal.

“The potential for government failure and the resulting humanitarian crisis on Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands is high,” reads the unclassified J-2 assessment obtained by the House Oversight Committee.

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, is seizing on the newly obtained intelligence assessment to urge his Republican counterpart atop the committee to press the White House for documents related to the federal response in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

The intelligence assessment, written five days after Maria struck Puerto Rico, was prepared for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cummings wants to know whether Trump was aware of the assessment at the time given his public comments during that period, including his criticism of local officials who sounded the alarm about similar concerns raised in the report.

“Both territories now suffer from devastated power grids and communications networks, lack of potable water, crippled transportation and supply systems, severely degraded medical services, and an economy that will take months to rebuild,” the September 25 report stated.

“The ability to get the territories back on their feet quickly is crucial for a growingly desperate population of 3.6 million American citizens,” the report said.

Those issues — damaged transportation networks, power grids and affected medical services — would plague Puerto Rico for months to come, hindering the island’s recovery and causing hundreds more deaths.

Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria hit, the impact of the devastation and the breakdown in recovery that did happen still weigh very heavily on residents.

Three days after the storm, Luz Marie Colon told CNN the hurricane had ripped the roof off her home, allowing the torrential rains to soak everything inside.

All she wanted then was a dry bed to sleep on. She dragged a drenched mattress into the sun to dry. She is still sleeping on that same mattress in her damaged home in Cataño.

She says she feels alone and is angered by the response, from all levels of government.

“When I think about it, I feel despair. I worry if another one could come,” she told CNN, still visibly shaken anytime she hears thunder. “Could it be worse? I get nervous.”

The unveiling of the military assessment comes as Trump’s handling of last year’s hurricane comes under increased scrutiny, while Hurricane Florence collides with the East Coast.

Cummings’ statements came after Trump earlier on Thursday rejected the finding that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria and falsely accused Democrats of inflating the death toll. Trump has also in recent days touted the federal response in Puerto Rico as an “incredible unsung success” and “unappreciated great job.”

Democrats on the oversight panel, as well as other committees, have been demanding documents and calling for hearings for a year on the government’s handling of last year’s hurricane season. They have aggressively criticized Republicans for doing little in investigating the issue.

Writing to Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and the committee chairman, Cummings said: “Since you have refused to request any documents from the White House, it remains unclear whether President Trump received this information and disregarded it in his many public statements, or if there was a serious communication breakdown between the White House and first responders on the ground. Either scenario raises grave concerns as our nation prepares for the impact of Hurricane Florence in the coming days.”

The Oversight Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing two weeks ago with FEMA on last year’s hurricanes, but it has twice been postponed due to recent storms.

Cummings’ letter to Gowdy also draws on an email exchange between a senior National Guard official and first responders on the ground who claim to be “finding mass graves in mud slide areas.”

The exchange, which came nine days after the hurricane struck Puerto Rico, says “urban search and rescue started uncovering today, right before sunset.”

“Don’t know if it’s families, or an entire town that was trying to avoid flooding and got buried my (sic) land slide. Planning for the worst,” the email reads. The identity of the sender is redacted.

The documents came this week in response to an October 11, 2017, request Republicans and Democrats on the committee made to the Pentagon for documents related to the initial response.

Cummings’ office does not appear to have obtained further information about whether mass deaths caused by land slides were indeed confirmed.

“The production we obtained this week was partial and did not include additional documents about these matters after this initial period,” Cummings writes in his letter to Gowdy.

Cummings writes that he is seeking White House documents to confirm whether Trump was aware of both of these findings at the time.

Gowdy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.