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Disaster Aid for Puerto Rico: Congressional Actions

Kathya Severino Pietri

Hurricane Maria caused billions of dollars in damages to Puerto Rico and left 3.6 million island residents without power, potable water, and telecommunications. The situation has quickly evolved into a humanitarian crisis.

The Category 4 hurricane devastated Puerto Rico at a particularly difficult time for the island. The Government of Puerto Rico is currently facing a fiscal crisis with more than $74 billion in public debt. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares stated that Puerto Rico lacks the necessary resources to deal with this catastrophic disaster. The federal government has begun disaster relief efforts on the island. However, many have expressed concerns that federal efforts have been insufficient in light of the severity of the crisis.


Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

A request from the Government of Puerto Rico to waive FEMA cost-sharing requirements was approved by President Trump. The President authorized 100 percent cost share for debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, for 180 days, beginning on September 17, 2017. This waiver does not cover long-term assistance efforts, hazard mitigation projects, or grants to replace personal property and help meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation, and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance or other federal, municipality, and charitable aid programs. Those continue to fall under the 75/25 cost-sharing requirement.

On September 28, the Pentagon appointed US Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military hurricane efforts in Puerto Rico. This follows increasing pressure from House & Senate Democrats to increase Department of Defense resources on the Island. The three-star star general and Commander of USNORTHCOM’s Joint Force Land Component Command will serve as the Department of Defense’s primary liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the response efforts transition from a sea-based to a land-based operation.


The Jones Act Waiver

On Monday, September 25, several members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security requesting a temporary suspension of the Jones Act. The letter, signed by Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Jose Serrano (D-NY), Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL), Darren Soto (D-FL), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Joyce Beatty (D-OH), and Joe Crowley (D-NY), argued that a waiver was needed to facilitate the delivery of food, medicine, clothing, and other supplies to the island. A day later, Senator John McCain(R-AZ) voiced his support for the effort.

Initial reports suggested the waiver was going to be denied with Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, an office of the Department of Homeland Security, stating that there was “sufficient capacity" of U.S.-flagged vessels. However, following further political pressure and public outrage, the Trump Administration announced on Thursday, September 28, that it would waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, announced the waiver on Twitter, claiming that President Trump had authorized it at the request from Governor Rosselló of Puerto Rico. The waiver will be in effect for 10 days.


Congress: House of Representatives

On Friday, September 22, Congressman Serrano (D-NY) sent a letter to President Trump requesting the creation of a task force to coordinate reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. The letter was signed by Representatives Velazquez (D-NY) and Soto (D-FL) and Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez (R-PR).

On Wednesday, September 27, House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) and Rep. Velázquez (D-NY) led 145 House Democrats in demanding President Trump provide additional resources for disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The letter requests that the Department of Defense deploy additional resources to aid recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It also calls for the appointment of a senior general to oversee all recovery efforts, the deployment of life-saving military capabilities that would otherwise be unavailable to the relief effort, deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and an increase in personnel to assist local law enforcement.

On Thursday, September 28, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) sent a letter inviting White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke to come speak to the caucus. The lawmakers also expressed their concern over reports that the White House might not send Congress a formal request for disaster aid until mid-October. The letter was signed by House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and U.S. Virgin Island Delegate Stacey Plaskett.


Congress: Senate

On Monday, September 25, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) visited Puerto Rico to survey the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. Following his visit, he penned a letter with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), to support requests by Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for additional federal resources to assist with recovery efforts.

On Wednesday, September 27, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), and 35 other Democratic Senators sent a letter to President Trump to urge swift action by the federal government. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee (formerly the Committee on Interior and Insulars Affair) has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories. Lawmakers called on Trump to expand his disaster declaration to encompass the entire island of 3.4 million U.S. citizens, just some of Puerto Rico's municipalities are currently under a full disaster declaration. They also called on Trump to work with Congress to waive the local cost-share requirement for FEMA public assistance disaster funding for all categories of FEMA public assistance. The senators also urged Trump to boost Medicaid funding to Puerto Rico and to appoint a Special Assistant for Rebuilding, in order to coordinate federal efforts for Puerto Rico across all departments and agencies. Finally, they requested the federal government send more Department of Defense assets: construction battalions to repair power and transportation infrastructure, command, and control aircraft for air traffic control; helicopters for search and rescue; and 1,500 service members to provide disaster and humanitarian assistance.

On Thursday, September 28, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced they are introducing a measure to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act. In his statement McCain called the Jones Act “an antiquated, protectionist law that has driven up costs and crippled Puerto Rico’s economy”. A supporter of free trade, McCain has tried to reform and repeal the act previously in 1998, 2010, 2015 and as recently as this past July.


Status of an Emergency Aid Package

White House aides were working to prepare the disaster relief request necessary for Congress to take action. However, it is believed that the White House is likely weeks away from a formal funding request for Puerto Rico. Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill have not yet received any specific requests from the Trump Administration for how much money Puerto Rico will need. The new federal fiscal year, which begins October 1, will replenish the disaster relief fund with an additional $6.7 billion. However, FEMA will need additional funding to address the damage in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Texas. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has stated that it’s still too early to identify a spending amount to request from Congress and further assessments of the damage need to occur.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has similarly stated that recovery needs are still being assessed but that Congress will seek to approve a new allocation of emergency funds for hurricane victims in mid-October.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is demanding that lawmakers approve a disaster aid package by this week; however, this seems unlikely at this point. An official estimate still has not been produced. This may be because many damage-assessment teams are still working on recovery in states such as Texas and Florida. The White House believes that the available short-term funding is sufficient and that it is appropriate to wait for further estimates.


Further Actions

The slow response of the Trump administration has caused many to fear that Puerto Rico will not be treated as equally as Florida and Texas will. Puerto Rico does not have a voting member in Congress and residents of the island cannot vote in the Presidential election. This has spurred the Puerto Rican diaspora into action and many have begun contacting their representatives and government officials. The National Puerto Rican Agenda, a national coalition of organizations and community leaders, has launched a national letter drive to ask President Trump and Congress to take immediate action to save Puerto Rico. You can send a petition by going to https://national-puerto-rican-agenda.rallycongress.net.