Gov. Larry Hogan sends Maryland National Guard troops to Virgin Islands to help with hurricane relief

Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday that he has sent 100 Maryland National Guardsmen to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help with hurricane relief efforts.

The troops, from Catonsville’s 200th Military Police Company, will spend up to 30 days on the Caribbean islands helping local law enforcement and protecting important infrastructure.

The governor of the U.S. territory, home to 100,000 American citizens, requested the help from Maryland under an agreement that allows states and territories to coordinate emergency aid with one another.

The islands were hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September, leaving at least five people dead and forcing many from their homes. They are facing a slog to restore essential services and rebuild as they head into the economically vital tourist season.

“The recovery efforts in the Caribbean will be lengthy due to the level of destruction caused by the recent hurricanes, and Maryland is proud to help our neighbors and friends in their time of need,” Hogan said in a statement. “We are incredibly grateful to the dedicated men and women of the Maryland National Guard for their selfless service.”

The Maryland troops gathered at their armory early Monday before boarding a flight from BWI Marshall Airport, National Guard spokesman Col. Charles S. Kohler said. They are taking over from a detachment from Kentucky. Authorities in the Virgin Islands will reimburse Maryland for the cost of sending the troops, Kohler said.

The powerful hurricanes swept though the Caribbean in September, hitting islands across the sea with 150 mph winds.

The U.S Virgin Islands suffered major power, water and cellphone outages in the wake of the storms as well as other destruction. The damage there has received less attention than in much larger Puerto Rico, where President Donald Trump has faced questions over the effectiveness of the federal government’s response.

In the Virgin Islands, off to the east of Puerto Rico, the recovery is expected to take months. But authorities face a deadline of sorts in just three weeks when a Royal Caribbean cruise ship is due to arrive.

That’s a potential economic lifeline for the territory, which is heavily dependent on tourist dollars. Local news site St. Thomas Source reported that government officials are optimistic that the territory will be ready to receive an influx of visitors by then.

But while some beaches — a major draw for cruise passengers — have been declared safe, the site noted the island faces a litany of other problems including damaged roads, sunken boats littering the sea and destruction of the local hospital. A nighttime curfew remains in effect.

Some schools, meanwhile, are still closed because they are being used to shelter people who can’t go home. Others are open but splitting hours between students from different schools.

The number of people with electricity is still fluctuating but power authorities say their aim is to have 90 percent of the power restored by Christmas, with the help of some 500 workers being brought in from outside the territory.

On Saturday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pushed back the deadline for people on the islands to register for federal aid. Officials said poor communications had made it difficult for people to sign up.

A smaller contingent of Maryland National Guard troops is also helping in Puerto Rico. Soldiers from the 729th Quartermaster Composite Supply Company are working to purify water on the island, where people have reportedly been turning to contaminated Superfund sites for drinking water.

More than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents don’t have access to safe drinking water, and power is off for more than 80 percent of people. Most roads are still closed.

The situation in Puerto Rico led to harsh words between Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, a Democrat, who said the president was doing too little to help. In a visit to the island, Trump played down the scale of the disaster and later mused on Twitter that maybe federal help should be pulled back.

Congress is expected to send a $36.5 billion hurricane aid package to Trump for his signature this week. If approved, those funds could give Puerto Rico a major boost.

It is not only the National Guard from Maryland that has been aiding in hurricane response this year.

A wing from the Civil Air Patrol helped document damage in Puerto Rico and emergency crews from Montgomery County helped with rescue efforts. Other teams have helped in Texas and Florida, which were also hit with storms.

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