Rebuilding Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands: Better energy infrastructure is key
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We just returned from an eye-opening bipartisan CODEL to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to survey damage caused by hurricanes Maria and Irma, which has been the focus of our work on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Recent developments in the news have, sadly, pushed the subject of the hurricane recovery effort to the margins of most Americans’ awareness. Our main takeaway from the trip is that the federal government’s effort to help our fellow Americans in these island territories needs to be sustained for months – or even years to come.

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FEMA and the local governments have done impressive work, both in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But there is still much work to do. Tragically, most of the residents remain without power.  This is due to the antiquated grid systems in both territories as well as the difficult terrain. The Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, for example, looks like a patchwork quilt at night with some neighborhoods lit up and others completely dark.  Mountainous areas are even more hard-hit, as virtually all the power lines were destroyed by the hurricanes.

The governments in both jurisdictions are committed to improving their infrastructure as they rebuild. For example, hardening the power system by installing more buried power systems, using renewable energy sources, and creating micro grids that can be interconnected. 

Unfortunately, they are hampered by the Stafford Act, which allows use of federal recovery funds only for rebuilding infrastructure to the level at the time of the storm.  We should build back better – not only for the overall quality of life for residents in these places, but also to save money and lives in the long run when there are additional disasters. Better-protected power sources mean keeping the lights and generators on in hospitals and nursing homes, among other places.

A young FEMA worker in Puerto Rico told us he was enrolling a woman for assistance when she started to cry. When asked why, she told him her mother had died. “She was sick, and her medical equipment was electric. When the power went out, she just died.” This was a needless tragedy, and there are many more such stories across Puerto Rico.

In St. Croix, USVI, a hospital administrator begged us to help get the power restored, saying, “You will go home to your Christmas trees and holidays, but we can’t even turn our lights on much less our trees.” 

It’s been nearly three months since the hurricanes hit, and these people still live under these circumstances. Let’s not let the rush of congressional activity during this hectic last month of the session, the customary crush of activities of the holiday season, or whatever happens day to day in D.C. divert our attention from our Caribbean compatriots. We must continue to fight for them and their futures.

DeGette and Upton are senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.