Department of Defense Press Briefing by Generals Rydholm and Holland in the Pentagon Briefing Room to Provide an Update on Support to Hurricane Relief Efforts
Maj. Gen. Derek P. Rydholm, deputy to the chief of Air Force Reserve; Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division
STAFF: All right. Good afternoon, guys. Thank you for being here, and joining us today are Major General Derek Rydholm, deputy chief of Air Force Reserve, and Brigadier General Diana Holland, commanding of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Atlantic Division. They're going to talk to you today about hurricane relief efforts and what their -- what their services have done in support of it.
MAJ. GEN. DEREK P. RYDHOLM: Thanks, Mark.
Hey, first off, I appreciate having the opportunity to stand here and hopefully be able to answer the questions that you would have about what we're doing in support of -- the hurricanes and any of the other kind of natural disasters we've had.
And I'm standing in on behalf of my boss, Lieutenant General Maryanne Miller, that couldn't make it here today. But we're here to represent the more than 69,000 Reserve citizen airmen that are currently serving in the United States Air Force Reserve.
Over the last couple of weeks, we've seen numerous natural disasters. And I would tell you that I have firsthand knowledge, and that I have a house in Key Largo, Florida, and for Hurricane Irma, I was actually in Miami when it -- when it struck. I had evacuated out of the Keys.
But it's humbling to see the amount of luck that I had, and the minimal damage that I had. But I -- our hearts go out to everybody that's been impacted this -- by the multitude of different events that we've had, and, you know, large swathes of -- in the States -- the partners in Mexico, the Caribbean, the islands -- just a lot of stuff, and additionally, even reaching out to the West Coast, to the California wildfires and other things.
We've had -- we have three special units in the reserve command that do the hurricane hunting mission, the aerial spray mission, which has been active during these events, and the wildfire missions, as well.
So we're quite proud of what they've done in support of the efforts, and we anticipate here, you know, with all the four Atlantic hurricanes we've seen, and just the instability we've seen lately, that we're here, prepared to do as much as we can and continue to work that and to support everyone that's been affected by this.
So, well before Harvey made landfall, until the season is over and wildfire season's over, we'll be there, and we'll be through volunteerism and other forces here to support -- as a supporting agency of the Department of Defense, to all the rest of our partner agencies in this -- in this time of -- difficult time.
So, over to General Holland.
BRIG. GEN. DIANA HOLLAND: Thank you, sir. Well, good afternoon, and I, too, thank you for being here today. As was already mentioned, I'm Diana Holland, and I represent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Over the past few weeks, the Corps of Engineers has been heavily engaged in supporting our states and territories following three hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria.
And so, like the General here, I'd like to express our thoughts and prayers for those affected by these storms. We recognize that there are people who've lost a home, their belongings, potentially their livelihood. And it's for that reason that people of our organization, the organization I represent, feel so passionate about doing everything possible to help.
So just a little bit about who we are: I command one of nine divisions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Atlantic Division. The area of responsibility of our division includes the southeastern United States, as well as the Caribbean islands.
So, as you can imagine, the entire impact of Irma and Maria was felt in our region. And so our division is the lead for the Corps of Engineers in the hurricane response following Irma and Maria.
The areas in our region affected include Georgia, Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and, just to briefly describe the complexity of this, two storms, which each brought unique impacts requiring specific resources and expertise, two territories, four governors, two FEMA regions and so on. It has been truly remarkable to watch the broad U.S. government response, and I'm happy to report that we're working very closely together in support of those governors' priorities.
So, as I mentioned each state and territory has its own requirements. There are -- but there are some things that remain consistent. We share the desire to reunite families, get survivors out of shelters and hotels and get back to their homes and restore some normalcy.
So, our role in this is, as we like to say, FEMA's engineers. They give us our missions, and our missions are what you might expect engineers to do. Debris removal and when I talk about debris removal I mean high volume, in the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards. Infrastructure assessments, temporary emergency power restoration, temporary roofing.
Some of you may be familiar with Blue Roof. And I can talk more about that later, but that's one of the primary things we do when residences are damaged in temporary housing. And then, in collaboration with the United States Coast Guard and NOAA, we work really hard with the Port Authority's to help them open the ports.
So, our approach to this support to FEMA is right people, right place early. And, here's what I mean by that. Early on before Irma we prepositioned our soldiers and civilians, selected because they have certain specific skillsets, on the island so that as soon as Hurricane Irma passed they could quickly assess the damage and begin to plan for the required support.
We anticipated that ports of entry would be closed, and they were. Had we not been on those islands in advance along with the other agencies we would not have been timely. We would have been subject to the same delays that others faced, because the airports and the ports were closed.
Same approach for Florida. Although in the case of Florida we don't face the same logistics challenges as we do on the island, because the ability to transport people and supplies by ground is a key advantage. Then similarly as Maria approached we had the right people in place so that after the storm they could quickly restart our efforts. Right people, right place, early.
Last week I had the privileged to visit Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and unfortunately as you've seen in all of the images a lot of damage across the board, and that was before Maria struck the territories. Our teams which sheltered there during the hurricanes were able to begin their assessments of the damage yesterday morning following the storm. And, the assessments continue. The airports are damaged and closed, although I've just learned that the airport in Puerto Rico has opened to military traffic. The ports are closed. Of course a lot of power outages, roads blocked by debris, water damage, the things you would expect following a major hurricane.
These assessments will continue over the next several days, but all of us that support FEMA's response are acting. And so, here's what some of those actions are. We're looking at our ports on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and are working with NOAA and the Coast Guard to survey the channel so that we can confirm that they are safe to open. We will assist FEMA in the islands and emergency repairs at the airports in San Juan and Virgin Islands.
Power -- so with power other things are manageable. So, it's really one of our first priorities. We're helping to assess power on both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, particularly in the hospitals, health clinics and waste water treatment plants.
We've restarted the Blue Roof program in the Virgin Islands. So, Blue Roof refers to FEMA's 10-millimeter blue sheeting that can be installed over a damaged roof, providing protection from additional rain and allowing people to leave shelters and return home.
In fact we think tomorrow that the first Blue Roof in the Virgin Islands will happen, and that will be a huge milestone and a real moral boost for the people of the Virgin Islands.
And as we look to the weeks and months ahead, we will continuously right-size the response teams to ensure we have the right capabilities in place, that we're balanced across all of these regions, with the right leaders at the right time as the recovery continues.
So, in closing, you know, we're just halfway -- just over halfway through the hurricane season. And that -- that's important for us to remember: 1 November is kind of the mark on the wall where we see the end of that season. So though we focus our attention on the response to Irma and Maria, we also must remain prepared and flexible in the event we have another storm.
I'd like to talk briefly about our people. So our essential soldiers and civilians of the Corps of Engineers, who were on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands following Irma, chose to remain in place despite warnings that Maria could be a major hurricane, and despite being offered the opportunity to evacuate. They wanted to be in position to help as soon as possible. And they wanted to show the people of those two territories that we're in this together.
It has really been an inspiration to be a part of this effort. So one point of nuance, many of the hundreds of the Corps of Engineers who are part of this response aren't actually assigned to the division I command. They come from across the United States, including Hawaii; Alaska; Seattle; Tulsa; Sacramento; Buffalo, New York; and many other places.
Without exception, when I've asked our team, how do they feel about the mission, serving in Georgia, Florida, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, they say, "I can't imagine being anywhere else. I want to help. I want to make this right for people who have lost so much."
So, in closing, there's a long road ahead. But as a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers, I can say we're committed to this, no matter how long it's required.
Thank you for your attention and your patience, and I guess we're happy to answer your questions.
GEN. RYDHOLM: Absolutely.
STAFF: (off mic)
You sort of mentioned this in your remarks. But, other than the electrical grid, could you talk about how widespread the sort of devastation is in regards to schools and hospitals? And how long do you think it's going to take you to complete your assessment on the damage?
GEN. HOLLAND: I think it is going to -- it's going to be many days before we have a good picture on all of -- on the whole scope of this. The first -- the first thing we start with is the essential services, so, like I said, the hospitals, the clinics, some of the government buildings, because they need that in order to continue to manage the response.
So I can't say exactly how long it's going to take, but it's going to be weeks before we know the full scope. And that doesn't mean that we don't start for a few weeks. We -- the -- but the major assessment and the overall, complete restoration on Puerto Rico will take some time.
Q: What about the schools and hospitals? Sort of where -- where do -- where does the other infrastructure, other than the electrical grid, sort of stand right now?
GEN. HOLLAND: So I don't know, right now, beyond power. I mean, we do know that the power outage is extensive, between 95 and 100 percent, right now. So it will be -- it will -- you know, and without power, then you potentially have issues with water. But all of that is still being assessed right now.
STAFF: Lucas (Fox News).
Q: You mentioned, ma'am , the -- an airport in Puerto Rico is now open to military traffic. Which airport was that?
GEN. HOLLAND: San Juan, the major airport.
Q: Can either of you outline the military assistance to the Virgin Islands right now?
GEN. RYDHOLM: I can speak to some degree to that. We have had air mobility aircraft that have gone down through the Air National Guard. We've taken special tactics teams, and members of those teams are the types of people that would open airports. That's some of the stuff that they can do.
We've also provided humanitarian aid through mobility aircraft, with MREs and water and other things. And that's ongoing through Air Mobility Command and U.S. Transportation Command.
Q: And finally, how does their response to these hurricanes differ from the response to Hurricane Katrina?
GEN. HOLLAND: Yeah, I really don't have the background to make that comparison. I know we do have lessons learned -- the Corps of Engineers does have lessons learned. I don't know that off the top of my head though.
Q: Just with the string of recent storms, was there any concern that the military is being stretched too thin by these disasters, and what, if anything, are you doing to prevent that?
GEN. HOLLAND: So, I can only speak for the corps of engineers, I can't speak for the whole military. But I know that we do have a lot going on, but we're always mindful that we have to balance the different tasks and make sure that we are ready to respond to the next one. So I think the corps of engineers is postured to do so, but I can't speak for all of DOD.
GEN. RYDHOLM: So I'll speak for a lot of the aspects of DOD. If you look, this is a -- really, a joint engagement. You've got assets from the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Army, the Air Force, all working together here, and the National Guard to a large degree. Our people, specifically talking to our reserve airmen -- our people love to do this, because the human emotion side of this, when you're able to deliver water to people that have been without power in some of the hottest times of the year, and humid times of the year, with insects and other things, and having experienced that myself in 1992, with Hurricane Andrew. To see a Red Cross food truck come up and deliver a hot meal after being out trying to go through debris, it is wonderful. So the people that we've talked to, and the people that we've sent down there are very happy to do the mission. This is a type of mission -- those are the types of things that our air mobility, our large aircraft are very good at.
We have responded in all natural disasters through the islands, in Haiti and other places in the past. I think we're fine because our air crew members, and our crew members of our mobility aircraft get great training on these missions, and these are the types of things that we're good at. And we've got people that are lining up to continue to support, and I think we're doing just fine there.
Q: You said you had to be mindful to make sure that you're balancing, could you give some examples?
GEN. HOLLAND: Well, for example, as Florida -- as we complete the temporary power mission in Florida, you know, we're always measuring how many people do you need in Florida, because we want to be -- whether they go somewhere else, or they redeploy and be ready for a future storm, we're just always mindful of the troop to task and making sure that we have the right number that's actually required. I don't know if that answers your question.
Q: Just on the temporary power in Puerto Rico, you talked about that effort, and, obviously, the scale – 95 to 100 percent of the island being without power, is temporary power, primarily, is it generators? And is there a capacity issue? I mean, with such a large island, trying to just temporary power, in terms of fuel, and the number of generators, are you requisitioning them from elsewhere? I mean, that scale, how are you tackling that?
GEN. HOLLAND: FEMA flies in generators -- supplies us with the generators, well, they don't necessarily fly them in. They have distribution centers already prepositioned there. They will bring in more as more are required.
Q: Do you have an estimation on how many will be required?
GEN. HOLLAND: I do not know how many generators.
Q: One of the things we're hearing from Puerto Rico is residents there don't have comms, and so they're not able to communicate whether they're safe or not, and there's been a lot of frustration from people here trying to find out about their loved ones. Can you give us any assessment in terms of what, if anything, is being done to restore communications, and when Puerto Ricans can expect to have the ability to communicate with their -- to their loved ones?
GEN. RYDHOLM: I can't give you a timeframe, but what I can tell you is that we are able to fly mobile comms support in, and that is ongoing. And we've heard the same things that you're saying, and the frustrations associated with that.
But that's the -- the types of efforts that we have. I can't talk to you about scope and how soon, but I can tell you that we're doing that.
Q: Is that mobile comm support for the military? Or is it for citizens as well?
GEN. RYDHOLM: I think it's more for the citizens. But realize that we also, along with that, are able to bring other first responders, if you will. So we're able to fly, on our mobility aircraft, firefighters, search and rescue and other civil support, as well.
Q: But can you give me a sense -- is it days? Is it weeks before -- can you kind of help the public to get a sense of when they might be able to reach their loved ones?
GEN. RYDHOLM: I wish that I could...
GEN. HOLLAND: Yeah.
GEN. RYDHOLM: ... but, as General Holland said, until -- you know, think about it. Until, probably, today, there was no real understanding at all of the level -- the gravity of the situation. So until someone can take a look at that, I mean, just having done Irma in Miami and looking at the volume of power that was out in the state of Florida for a relatively light event, at least in the Miami area, I think it's going to take a while.
But until they have a chance to take a look at that, I wouldn't want to speculate with a timeframe.
Q: I'd like to go back to the question about being stretched too thin. You said you were doing fine, but as you assess the devastation, which is likely to be widespread devastation, do you anticipate that there's going to be a need for additional military resources? Or are you expecting to make, you know, requests for more? Can you talk about what that might be?
GEN. RYDHOLM: Well, as a-- I don't know that I can answer to that purely. But as the military, through U.S. NORTHCOM and others, is -- the Department of Defense is in support of other agencies, like USAID and others. And until we get that request for support, it's difficult for us to say what assets we have available.
Do I personally believe that the -- that this is going to be a long road to recovery, in many cases? I absolutely do, because I've watched this over the years, for various other events. But I would tell you very firmly that the entirety of the Department of Defense takes this very seriously, and we -- these are our homes and our neighbors and our friends, as well.
And we have evacuated some of our own personnel, in preparation for these storms, and now, have gone back in support of the storms with those same assets and those same personnel. So we will be there for the long run.
Q: Two quick ones, General. What is a mobile comms support? Are those like mobile cell phone towers -- small -- like, sectors, or something, or what is that?
GEN. RYDHOLM: Well, I'm not a comms person, so it would be unfair for me, probably, to go into the nitty-gritty of that. But suffices to say, if you look at what the Department of Defense has done through history, in light of some of our wars, we have opened austere airfields, and we have specific units that have the talents and capabilities to open runways, open airfields and provide the infrastructure support there.
So I would hesitate to go any deeper into that, because it's not my background. But we're pretty good at this stuff, so I think we'll be there doing the best we can.
Q: OK. And then just one more -- I know it's early, but have you seen any signs, and I guess particularly in Puerto Rico, of any security problems yet that -- of any, you know, issues on the ground with looting, or anything like that?
GEN. HOLLAND: I'm not aware of any. I have not heard that.
GEN. RYDHOLM: I'm unaware, as well.
Q: Ma'am, going back to Hurricane Harvey, are there still Corps of Engineers assets responding in that -- to that storm?
GEN. HOLLAND: Yes.
Q: Can you tell us what they are doing at this point?
GEN. HOLLAND: You know, I -- I -- I'm not -- I probably couldn't. Another division oversees that particular storm. I do know that they are steadily redeploying personnel out of Texas, either to come to Florida, or Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, because the requirements ...
You know, once the state and other agencies take on some of these tasks, it's not as -- the Corps of Engineers' expertise isn't necessarily required quite as much as they are in the early stages, so...
Q: Can you give an idea of the numbers you guys have in Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and in Florida?
GEN. HOLLAND: Yeah, so total right now across the -- all of the islands, the Corps of Engineers employees are 127, OK? So, you know, I -- I think a lot of how we leverage the response is through contracts, whether local contracts, or contracts coming from the continental United States. So that's why that number, you know, 127, I think to a lot of folks, that doesn't seem like a lot. But it's the right expertise that knows how to leverage the acquisition contracting tools to hire local businesses to do some of this relief, if they're -- if they're able to.
Q: And then, it -- it sounds like some of these folks have essentially responded to three hurricanes in a row. How taxing is that on them, you know, personally? Is that -- that's -- is there any precedent for that? I mean, is it...
GEN. HOLLAND: I know we've had years of four hurricanes in our -- in our particular region in one season. So I don't think this is unprecedented.
The folks that I have talked to that have gone from storm to storm, first of all, you couldn't tell them no. They're -- they're not going to be told no. We -- we make sure, though, that they do have an opportunity to go home, to refit, to rest, and -- before they get on the airplane to go to the next storm. But this is, you know, they're very driven by the purposes of -- of helping, so it's not a bad problem to have, I guess.
GEN. RYDHOLM: Our 403rd Wing, hurricane-hunting weather birds, this is what they do. So although it has -- it has been a significantly higher storm season, it is not uncommon for them to fly out of one hurricane, and into the other. They at times do it from forward- staged locations. They will continue throughout the hurricane season, and they're going to provide tremendous information to help the -- the national assets to understand the potential for -- for any future storms.
Q: Can you just walk us through what'll happen next in Puerto Rico, now the airport's open for military aircraft? What's -- what does that look like in the next hours, days...?
GEN. HOLLAND: You know, I'm not -- I'm not sure exactly of what FEMA will direct specifically. But I do know for us, our next move is to get another headquarters from the Army Corps of Engineers. A -- a colonel who works in our organization will lead additional leaders and staffing to go into Puerto Rico and organize the Corps of Engineers response. So that's our next step. We think that's going to happen Monday -- Sunday or Monday time frame. And then -- and then by then, we'll have the missions, more assessment, and we'll have additional understanding of what the missions are going to be.
And then they'll start implementing the different contracts to start, whether it's Blue Roof, or removing debris. It's -- it's -- we're a little bit dependent. Well, we're very dependent on the governor's priorities, and so as he sees the magnitude of this, and he develops his priorities, that's -- that's then how that works. He then relays that to FEMA, and if FEMA decides the Corps is the -- the avenue to go to -- to employ our skills, then -- then we'll receive those orders.
Q: But it won't be until Sunday or Monday for the comms equipment, or...
GEN. RYDHOLM: ...it's all based on requests. And as a supporting agency, we would see that. My expectation would be, because I think they're already been doing this in the islands, that the Puerto Rico International Guard will be heavily engaged in support of any activities required -- to include if there were issues with -- whomever asked a question about looting and other things, they provide security.
But I would also expect that based on those requests, we would have mobility aircraft, which is one of the reasons that it's good to get the military airfield open first. We will be bringing in the needed supplies and support based on other agency requests to the department.
Q: Will it be today or tomorrow?
GEN. RYDHOLM: I can't tell you. All I would tell you is, is through USNORTHCOM, that they are likely getting requests right now, and my expectation would be, because we respond very rapidly, that if there has been a request for Department of Defense support there, it is probably already happening. And we just don't realize it.
STAFF: OK, guys. If that's it -- we're sitting at about the 30 minute -- you have one more question? Please, go ahead.
Q: Sir, you had mentioned that some of your personnel are in these affected areas, and you said that you, personally, (inaudible). I was just wondering if I could ask you a personal question.
GEN. RYDHOLM: Sure.
Q: How did Key Largo fare, and how did your own...
GEN. RYDHOLM: Key Largo did OK. And it was interesting because as a person who has watched this before, I moved to Key Largo because of Hurricane Andrew. So I understood, but the people that live in the Florida Keys have not been struck by a storm of any magnitude for the majority of the last two centuries. So, my -- Key Largo, from my perspective, did pretty good. But based on the fact of where the eye hit, and how quick the winds dissipate, you don't have to start going very far south to where you see major devastation. Now, because I was in Miami, and we were unable to get people back into the Florida Keys, at the last moment, we chose to go out of there based on the turn of the eye. And where we felt that it was going to impact.
So we went, actually, into Miami. Did not go back down to the Keys, but I've been keeping contact through Internet, Facebook, online phone videos and pictures, so I have a pretty good idea of my own stuff, and I have seen posted things of friends who have had significantly more damage than I experienced, only 5 to 6 miles south of my house. So my concern would be, as you start to look at about Islamorada, Marathon, south towards Key West, I think we're going to see significant problems, and it's going to be a very long road to recovery in a place that is virtually 100 percent dependent on tourism.
Q: Just can you put in context how bad the Virgin Islands were hit compared to other surrounding areas, or maybe compare the damage to Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands?
GEN. HOLLAND: You know, without having an assessment of Puerto Rico yet, I really couldn't do that.
Q: Just the Virgin Islands then, can you just put into context the damage, describe the damage in the Virgin Islands?
GEN. HOLLAND: Ninety percent power outages. One of the challenges we have in the Virgin -- or the Virgin Islands has is that they have a lot of above ground power lines. And so, that's going to take a long time to fix. When I was over there, driving on the different roads and surveying the damage, a lot of down power lines and poles across the road. A lot of debris, a lot of homes in different stages of -- most affected in some way, some very seriously. It's very extensive.
But I would also note, you know, they were really energized to get after this, and to start making progress. So just within a couple -- from the two days before I got there, our commander on the ground had -- driving by gas stations, for example, and there were long lines to get fuel.
By the time I was there, just 48 hours later, there weren't fuel lines anymore. We were able to go around the entire island with our vehicle, which was an incredible improvement compared to 48 hours before, then I made a second visit two days later and it was already better. There was a couple of restaurants open. There were grocery stores open.
So they're really -- you know, they're really trying to make the improvements while the rest of us are supporting them. So, this was -- Maria was definitely an unfortunate setback.
Q: Would you say that every home in the Virgin Islands to some degree was damaged?
GEN. HOLLAND: I would not say every home in the Virgin Islands was damaged, but I would say probably most families affected in one way or the other.
STAFF: OK. All right, guys.
General Rydholm, General Holland, thank you very much for coming. Appreciate your time today. Thank you very much.
Hey, guys, if anybody wants to do a one on one for any for reason, get a few more questions on a more personal (inaudible) or anything like that come on up here, talk to me and the generals staffs And they have a little bit of time this afternoon they can sit down with you, if anyone's interested. OK?
That's all we have for today, guys. Thanks.