Puerto Rico needs an urgent economic aid package
© Getty Images

Puerto Rico needs the full support of the federal government to deal with the aftermath of the most devastating natural event to hit this United States territory in almost 100 years. 

Since Maria made landfall, almost two weeks ago, many federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as the Department of Defense, have stepped up to help us in the cleanup and restoration efforts, but more is needed.

ADVERTISEMENT
We understand the logistics of this endeavor, but I would like to point out the case of Florida. After hurricane Irma ravaged that state, more than 10,000 federal employees contributed within hours of the disaster, not only to provide help with search and rescue missions, but to rebuild the electrical grid and the telecommunications system, which they did in less than 10 days.

President Donald Trump has pledged aid to the island and thus far it has delivered, at slower pace than needed.

We recognize the historic nature of the visit made to the island by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE. It was the first time a sitting U.S. president landed in Puerto Rico to assess the recovery efforts. This must be commended.

But again, more is required. For example, Congress must pass a bill granting Puerto Rico equal opportunity regarding a series of federal programs. The first is Medicaid. Due to Hurricane Maria, the number of Puerto Ricans utilizing the public health services are sure to increase, exponentially. The current allocation of federal funds to cover medical expenses for the needy on the island stands at a 55 percent maximum. We are asking for a minimum of 83 percent, that’s the level used in the 50 states.

There’s also need for Congress to expand programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to include the unemployed-parent program, child care grants and child welfare assistance payments.

TANF provides Puerto Rico $71 million in aid for parents that lost their jobs, but we did not receive the full allocation of the program, including around $20 million for child care and another $15 million for retraining and education.

Another topic needed to be addressed is the funds distributed through the Nutritional Assistance Program. The White House should support a bill to increase the level of funding, placing it on equal ground with the states. That will mean that Puerto Rico will receive another $1,000 million to support the people living under the poverty level, which is sure to increase in the following months.

Housing will be one of the main issues confronting us in the following weeks as 250,000 homes were destroyed by Maria. This is an area where the federal government can immediately intervene, granting us an aid package not less than of $1,000 million to start building low-cost, medium-term housing projects to ease the transition of the people that lost their homes.

But more important is an economic stimulus package to jump start our economy, which took a major hit with this historic disaster. The package must be equal to the one the Bush administration gave to New Orleans after Katrina, which surpassed the $5,000 million in two years

Trump has left unanswered the question of payment of Puerto Rico’s massive structural debt, which stands at nearly $72,000 million.

Let me be clear about this. The debt is a product, mainly, of the political limbo the island has been in since the Spanish-American War of 1898 as a territory of our nation. Something needs to change. Puerto Ricans want statehood, full and equal recognition by Washington. The time is now.

In the meantime, Congress must provide a framework in which this debt can be paid, but under the consideration of the disaster that affected our island. No payments should be made until at least 2022, and even then, it needs to be attached to an improvement in our economy and the resolution of our political status with the United States.

Carlos ‘Johnny’ Mendez Nunez is speaker of Speaker Puerto Rico House of Representatives.