(Recasts, adds more background on disaster response controversy)
By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy, under mounting public pressure instigated by Hillary Clinton, plans to send the hospital ship USNS Comfort on Friday to the hurricane-battered island of Puerto Rico, the vessel’s first civilian disaster mission in seven years.
The Comfort, equipped to carry as many as 1,000 hospital beds, 12 operating rooms and one of America’s largest trauma units, is due to arrive in Puerto Rico by the middle of next week, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
The vessel’s departure date was announced a week after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and three days after Clinton, the former Democratic presidential nominee, urged Republican U.S. President Donald Trump in a Twitter message to deploy the ship.
Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis “should send the Navy, including the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico now. These are American citizens,” Clinton, who served as secretary of state under Trump’s predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, tweeted on Sunday.
Some political pundits, as well as frustrated residents of the storm-ravaged U.S. territory, have accused the Trump administration of being slower to mobilize aid to Puerto Rico than it would be if it were addressing a disaster on the U.S. mainland.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has strongly praised Trump for his performance in the storm’s aftermath.
Still, critics of Trump’s Puerto Rico response seized on the Clinton tweet, launching a petition drive via the website Change.org that drew some 260,000 supporters for deployment of the hospital ship and igniting a #SendtheComfort social media campaign.
The Pentagon did not explain why Navy hospital ship was not dispatched sooner or say whether Clinton’s admonition was a factor.
But a Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Comfort was not deployed before because the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which is overseeing disaster relief on the island, had not requested it.
The hospital ship will depart on Friday from its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, the Pentagon said. It takes up to four days to load and prepare the vessel.
Asked why the Comfort was not prepositioned in case of a deployment request, the official said weather conditions in the Caribbean just before and after the storm would have made it difficult.
Maria, the most powerful hurricane to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, cut a swath of destruction across the island last Wednesday with roof-ripping winds, torrential rains and pounding surf.
The storm claimed at least 16 lives on the island, knocked out the territory’s entire power grid, unleashed severe flooding and caused widespread heavy damage to homes and infrastructure. Rossello called it an unprecedented disaster for the island.
Medical facilities were especially hard hit, many left wind-damaged, flooded and short-staffed. A majority of the island’s 69 hospitals were without electricity or fuel to run backup generators, according to a Defense Department assessment.
The 890-foot (270-meter) Comfort, originally designed to treat wounded U.S. combat personnel, has taken on a secondary mission as a major asset for the Navy to deploy in response to natural disasters.
Its last civilian relief assignment was in Haiti following a devastating earthquake there in January 2010. The Comfort also was dispatched to the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and was sent on extended goodwill humanitarian missions through Latin America and the Caribbean in 2007 and 2011.
The ship typically anchors offshore and takes aboard patients ferried to the vessel by helicopter or small boats.
The Comfort will not be the only Navy ship sent to Puerto Rico. Two amphibious ships were previously deployed there - the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill.
Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker & Simon Cameron-Moore