In absence of presidential leadership, Congress needs to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
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A month after Hurricane Maria’s passage through Puerto Rico, almost the entire island is still in the dark, most of the communications infrastructure is down, a third of the population lacks access to potable drinking water, and thousands who lost their homes are still living in shelters. A third of the hospitals on the island are running on generators. With limited access to energy and basic necessities, daily life is a challenge and tens of thousands have found themselves forced to leave the island. This is a moment of crisis- and a test of leadership. And after one month, it is fair to say that this is a test the president has failed. 

The president has shown a shocking lack of empathy for the 3.4 million American citizens suffering in Puerto Rico. He has threatened to remove needed assistance, his trip to the island was delayed and patronizing, and his lack of attention to the devastation in the first few days meant that urgent needs went unaddressed, and problems compounded. Even today, the problems remain seemingly intractable- not because of the hard work being done by the federal government employees on the island, but because our leaders seem to lack the interest or will to respond.


The near term response is not inadequate because of a lack of resources. Last week, the House of Representatives finally approved disaster relief supplemental legislation that includes nearly $20 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund for hurricane response, a $4.9 billion loan to ensure Puerto Rico’s government remains solvent, and over $1.25 billion for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for residents of the island that will bring the island much-needed relief. While this is a decent temporary measure, much more will be necessary to bring Puerto Rico back to normalcy. We need a president willing to give this crisis the attention it deserves.

The ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico calls for comprehensive and sustained action. Immediately after Hurricane Maria, I urged the Trump administration to create a Presidential Task Force  – similar to the one that was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy – to coordinate and support the reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico and other states and territories that were hit by Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey. There has been no response as of yet.

In absence of executive leadership, we in Congress must find other ways to help Puerto Rico move forward. Hopefully, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE’s (R-Wis.) trip to Puerto Rico last week and his promise to fight for more aid will help in that regard. Three areas that need immediate attention: fully restoring and improving the island’s power grid, reestablishing its telecommunications networks, and addressing the island’s public health crisis.

Even before Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s power grid, the island was burdened by an outdated and inefficient energy infrastructure system. Most of that system has yet to be restored, and the energy infrastructure must be rebuilt from the ground up. This should be taken as an opportunity to revamp and upgrade Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the entire energy system. On the telecommunications front, many localities and individuals still can’t communicate with the rest of the island or their relatives. In the areas where service is somewhat available, it is both limited and inefficient. People often lack phone or internet signals at home and have to travel to specific locations to do so, or simply wait hours for services to improve. The federal government must do more to support the reestablishment of phone and internet services throughout the island as quickly as possible. A very limited power and telecommunications system is impacting businesses, schools, hospitals and other entities’ abilities to operate, pay their employees, and coordinate with FEMA on needed services and supplies. In short, this infrastructure is also essential for the effective implementation of recovery efforts. 

Additionally, without a greater focus on addressing urgent public health needs, Puerto Rico is facing a health crisis. Some hospitals currently offer limited health care services due to the fact that they lack access to full power, medicine, and adequate resources. There is also a serious threat of spreading infectious diseases as a result of both water-borne and insect borne illnesses. The federal government should ensure that individuals have access to fully functional hospitals and doctors throughout the island as well as medicine and safe drinking water to minimize the spread of dangerous diseases.  Immediate consideration must also be given to the federal health funding inequities and the exodus of medical professionals from the island in order to ensure a stable health care system in the long-term.

In times of crisis, our nation comes together to help the most vulnerable among us. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as part of the American family, should be treated no differently. President Trump’s actions, or lack thereof, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria have failed to meet this commitment, and damaged the immediate work that must be undertaken to rebuild from a catastrophe of this magnitude. The federal government has a duty to stand with our fellow American citizens residing in the territories as they recover from this crisis and rebuild for the future- and we in Congress will do just that.

Rep. José E. Serrano has represented The Bronx, New York City in Congress since 1990 and is the longest serving member of Puerto Rican descent.  He is a Senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.