Puerto Rico is just starting recovery efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, straining federal emergency relief resources and kindling doubt about how Congress will finance the operation.
Local and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said Friday the first priority is to find survivors and re-establish communications within the island. The U.S. territory is completely out of power after the Category 4 hurricane crashed into it Wednesday, devastating entire towns with at least six dead so far.
"We’re not even sure of how critical some areas are because ... about 95 percent of the island is without communication," said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.
"Our immediate focus is on providing life-saving resources including: urban search and rescue teams, generators for temporary power restoration to critical infrastructure, and life-sustaining commodities such as food and water," said William Booher, director of public affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Booher said the response effort in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — another American territory hard-hit by both storms — is "no different" from FEMA's efforts stateside.
But the agency's disaster relief fund is already strained from recovery operations in August, in response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and to Hurricane Irma in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Congress already approved $15.3 billion for Harvey relief and House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that Congress will have to act in October to address Irma and Maria.
"I’m sure that we’re going to do another, what we call a supplemental, sometime in October, once we have a full assessment of what is needed,” said Ryan.
Mercader noted that federal emergency relief teams were already on-site, responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which passed just north of Puerto Rico on Sept. 6 as a Category 5 storm.
While it's too early to estimate the cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico, the extent of the known damage indicates it could be a staggering amount.
"The one thing is that I want everyone to understand that it’s total devastation. It’s not the electric grid, it’s not some infrastructure," said Mercader. "Communities that don’t exist anymore — we are in big need for help from Congress."
It could not have come at a worse time for the island, which is still trying to restructure $70 billion dollars worth of debt to climb out of a bankruptcy-like filing from last May.
Congress was expected to address the island's fiscal situation this fall, but will now have to deal with emergency relief first.
Puerto Ricans have long been restless about the island’s status as a territory — which gives it a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives but no voting rights.
A June plebiscite to decide the territory's status was won overwhelmingly by those backing statehood, but opponents of the idea boycotted the election, marring its credibility. The statehood bid has also met some opposition from both parties in Congress.
Members of Congress, including Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine Senate eyes plan B amid defense bill standoff To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors MORE (R-Fla.) and Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, have spoken out in sympathy for the island.
The Natural Resources Committee oversees U.S. territories.
"Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are in dire need of our assistance and we will do everything in our power to ensure that all necessary resources are made available. As Americans, both in the mainland and throughout all of our territories, we are all in this together," said Bishop in a statement.
Still, Puerto Rican authorities expect the final tally to be devastating, with reconstruction potentially taking years.
With FEMA's stretched budget, that could mean initial recovery efforts are well-funded but longer term cleanup from earlier storms is interrupted.
For instance, FEMA last week froze long-term recovery funds for Hurricane Matthew, which hit North Carolina in October.
But a bigger challenge, once the initial cleanup is completed, will be for Puerto Rico to pay its part in long-term reconstruction.
"Getting to the long term, one of the big issues we see is that FEMA infrastructure assistance is provided on a cost-shared basis with the territorial government, and Puerto Rico is bankrupt," said Jeffrey Farrow, an expert on territorial affairs who managed the White House's response to Hurricane Georges in 1998.
Georges was the last major disaster to hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; it caused $6 billion — at 1998 value — of damage, according to Farrow.
After Georges, Farrow said, former President Clinton enacted temporary fiscal measures to help the two Caribbean territories cope with their share of reconstruction.
One of those provisions, an adjustment in the federal to territorial distribution of an alcohol tax, expired on Dec. 31.
Under another, Clinton changed the proportion at which FEMA and the territories split infrastructure spending from 75 percent federal and 25 percent territorial to 90 percent federal and 10 percent territorial.
Similar measures may be necessary now, said Farrow, because of Puerto Rico's financial difficulties.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, a representative for the island's general obligation creditors, told The Hill earlier this month — shortly before Irma struck — that he expected Congress to "provide the wherewithal" for Puerto Rico to emerge from that disaster in the same financial state as it entered.
And Puerto Rican authorities say the top items on their pre-hurricane agenda — government finances, healthcare and statehood — will eventually be addressed, but emergency relief comes first.
"We had a plan, but we have a fiscal reality, and we really need Congress to step up," said Mercader. "The priority is saving lives and rebuilding Puerto Rico."