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Fran Townsend on Puerto Rico relief effort: "You have to listen" to local officials

Fran Townsend on Puerto Rico crisis
Amid crisis in Puerto Rico, what went wrong? 03:51

With limited access to food, water, medicine and power 10 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, many have begun to question the federal response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the island. While President Trump touted the government's effort Friday, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz blasted the lack of progress.

 "We are dying here. And I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles long," Cruz said Friday.

Mr. Trump lashed out at Cruz on Twitter Saturday morning for her criticism of his administration's response.

CBS News senior national security analyst Fran Townsend, who authored an extensive report on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, told "CBS This Morning: Saturday" that the federal government has to listen to local officials and "respond to their needs."

"People on the ground have the best information, so the mayor and the governor know the best what their own constituents are dealing with and you have to defer to them," Townsend said. 

Because first responders usually live in the community affected by a disaster, Townsend said part of the issue is that they face challenges of their own.

San Juan mayor blasts the federal response in Puerto Rico 03:55

"The problem in a devastating natural disaster is those people are also victims, so they're not really in a position -- they may be the most competent first responders that you've got, but they've got their families and their homes to worry about," Townsend said.

Townsend, who served as homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, emphasized the importance of the military's role in disaster response.

"The people who are the best in this are the U.S. military. Right now there are 7,200 troops there. They need thousands more. They've got the Army Corps of Engineers, that's right. That will help in terms of getting electricity both in transmission and distribution but they need a lot more help right now until they get on their feet," she said.

Mr. Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act earlier this week to ease the delivery of aid by sea to Puerto Rico. Townsend called this the "best example" of the federal government listening to leaders on the ground. 

"Foreign flag ships are typically not allowed in to deliver these products unless U.S. carriers can't do it, and the administration's view was they got all the commodities in to Puerto Rico, they didn't need to waive the Jones Act. The governor called and said, 'Look, you do.' And they did it right away," she said.  

One of the major issues plaguing the relief effort is the lack of both trucks and drivers to deliver aid across the island.

"The three-star general is on his way, if he's not already arrived in Puerto Rico, to evaluate the response and what the requirements are. I wouldn't be surprised if he said, I need more troops in order to manage this distribution until Puerto Rico itself can get back on its feet," she said.

Asked why it took so long to get the general in place, Townsend said, "My understanding from the White House is, that three-star general has been in place literally from the beginning, but he was managing sort of his role from the mainland U.S. and I think the sort of adjustment here has been they're going to send him down there to understand better on the ground what the requirements are."

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