Washington Officials Paint Grim Picture of Chaos That Led to Approval of Troops
Officials in Washington painted a grim portrait Wednesday of the chaos in the U.S. Virgin Islands that led President Bush to authorize the use of federal troops, FBI agents and U.S. marshals to restore order.
While Hurricane Hugo’s destruction of communications links left details of the disorders unclear, one Interior Department official reported that every store on St. Croix appeared to have been looted.
“The situation is beyond the resources of the local authorities to control,” said a senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Guard Reports Unconfirmed
There were reports that National Guardsmen and police officers on the islands had taken part in the looting. However, a National Guard spokesman in Washington quoted Maj. Gen. Robert L. Moorehead, the commander of the National Guard on the Virgin Islands, as saying that reports of guardsmen “taking part in civil disobedience were not confirmed.”
Bush Administration officials reported to Congress, based on sketchy reports from ham radio operators, that unknown numbers of prisoners on St. Croix had escaped and were armed with guns. The prisoners were said to include drug offenders, murderers and rapists.
One Administration official, expressing caution, raised the possibility that ham radio operators, relaying reports from point to point, may have exaggerated the seriousness of the situation. “We’ll have to see for ourselves,” he said.
Congressional sources also said that the Federal Emergency Management Administration confirmed that local police were involved in some looting. But they said the agency was not being allowed to publicize such reports out of concern that they would embarrass Virgin Islands Gov. Alexander Farrelly.
Farrelly said Wednesday night he had not asked for the troops Bush authorized.
At the Pentagon, top generals meeting in the underground operations center planned the dispatch of about 1,100 troops to the islands aboard 16 C-141 Starlifter transports. A White House official said that the first units would probably arrive in St. Croix by 8 a.m.
Those selected were the 720th MP Battalion--with companies at Ft. Polk, La., Ft. Hood, Tex., and Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.--the 503rd MP Battalion from Ft. Bragg, N.C., and the 16th MP Brigade Headquarters from Ft. Bragg. They were taking along their own vehicles, three OH-58 helicopters, and “appropriate medical support” the Pentagon said.
In addition, the FBI’s 50-agent hostage rescue team, specially trained for such emergency assignments, was scheduled to leave the Washington area in military aircraft at 3 a.m. Thursday.
Federal troops have not been used to suppress rioting since 1968, when they were deployed in Washington, D.C., after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The use of troops was authorized in 1987 to deal with prison riots in Atlanta, but they were never deployed.
Cites ‘Domestic Violence’
In a written statement, Bush said: “I have been informed that conditions of domestic violence and disorder exist in and about the Virgin Islands.” A separate executive order said “members of the armed forces of the United States will be used to suppress the violence.”
The President’s decision was announced at the end of a day in which reports of a general breakdown of law and order continued to descend on Washington.
From St. Croix, a senior U.S. official reported to the White House that there would be “anarchy soon if something is not done,” a Bush Administration source said. Similarly, the Coast Guard reported that “the situation is serious; looting and civil disturbances are continuing.”
The scope of the apparent disorder was reflected in a report from one federal official on St. Croix, who advised superiors in Washington that the systems of government and law enforcement “are not in working order,” and that “order is in need of restoration.”
At least one of six Coast Guard cutters deployed off St. Croix was sheltering people who sought help not because of the hurricane but because of fears for their safety.
Cleanup Must Wait
Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said that Undersecretary Frank A. Bracken reported that any cleanup effort would have to wait until order had been restored.
“He said there had been a lot of devastation, that every store he had seen on the island appeared to have been looted, and that he was very concerned about security,” Goldstein said.
Earlier in the day, Bush declared the Virgin Islands a disaster area, making them eligible for low-interest loans for repairs.
In addition, Fitzwater said that the Interior Department had made $500,000 available for the purchase of food, safety supplies, and “rudimentary equipment to help in cleaning up, such as chain saws, nails, wood. . . . “
He said a fleet of Air Force transports were carrying portable generators and communications gear, while others were dispatched to evacuate Americans from Andros Island, farther north.
Staff writers Doug Jehl, Melissa Healy, Stanley Meisler and Don Shannon contributed to this story.