US Rep. Lloyd Smucker gets bird's-eye view of devastation wrought in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, lauds relief efforts
From his view from a helicopter, the damage to Puerto Rico stretched as far as his eyes could see.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, whose district covers most of Lancaster County, visited Puerto Rico on Saturday to see firsthand the damage left by Hurricane Maria, which struck the island territory on Sept. 20.
“We flew over a large portion of the island,” Smucker said during a telephone interview Monday.
“Everywhere that we went we could see the damage from the hurricane. It was pretty sobering to see,” Smucker said. “Every area of the island was impacted. ... Literally, the entire island.”
According to a report by The Atlantic, Maria was “the first Category 4 cyclone to hit the island since 1932.” The National Weather observed sustained winds of 155 mph, just shy of the 157-mph benchmark that would have made it a Category 5 storm.
Parts of Puerto Rico received 30 inches of rain in a day, The Atlantic reported, equal to the rain Houston received over three days during Hurricane Harvey in August. The winds from Maria caused “tornado-like” damage over a portion of the Puerto Rico, the story said.
“It was pretty widespread damage,” Smucker said.
‘Heartbreaking’ view from above
Smucker was among several legislators, plus officials from the White House and the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, who flew out of Andrews Air Force Base on Saturday, arriving in San Juan at 9:50 a.m.
He was given an aerial tour of the island in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, according to an itinerary provided by Smucker’s office, before meeting with officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rossello and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who was appointed by the Pentagon to lead recovery efforts by the military.
“It was heartbreaking to see,” Smucker said Monday.
“Every area that we flew over, you could see damage,” he added. “Roofs torn off houses, trees down. ... In some of the more mountainous areas, what once was green is all brown.”
Leaves were stripped from the trees left standing by the storm, Smucker said, and he could see areas where major power lines were disrupted and roadways were blocked.
He met briefly with some island residents who were impacted by the storm, he said.
Primary mission ‘achieved’
The federal government’s efforts have been “a fairly effective operation” so far, Smucker said.
Joint operations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and military, in cooperation with the governor’s office and local mayors, “focused initially on saving lives, and then on getting food and power and water to the people who need it,” he said.
“They’ve achieved their mission,” he said. “They’ve saved lives. They’ve distributed millions of meals and bottles of water.”
Officials have contacted “every home in the area,” he added. In some cases, he said, supplies were air-dropped into remote areas.
The most urgent goal is restoring electricity to the island’s 3.4 million residents, Smucker said.
“In some cases, that means rebuilding the grid,” he said. “Most of the hospitals are open, but some are still relying on generators.”
FEMA’s funding requests for relief efforts have been approved, Smucker said, “and they will keep us informed when more dollars are needed.
“But this is going to be long-term,” he said. “It’s going to take long-term funding from Congress, and long-term aid. ... We’re going to have to stay committed to doing that.”
Relief efforts are complicated, Smucker said, because “it’s an island. It’s more difficult to get goods to the island, to get commodities in.”
Officials are working to streamline efforts to get supplies to inland villages where they’re needed most, he said.
Meanwhile, he encouraged constituents to support organizations lending aid in hurricane-torn areas.
“While I was down there on Saturday, there was a fundraiser being held here in Lancaster to assist in Puerto Rico,” he said. “That says a lot about who we are as a country.”
Smucker was elected last year to the 16th Congressional District seat, which includes most of Lancaster County and parts of Chester and Berks counties, including the city of Reading. The district is home to 72,000 Puerto Ricans, Smucker noted recently.