Washington – After a weekend trip to the island, Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday said the United States is in danger of “failing” Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria-struck residents and said hundreds of storm victims already are arriving in Connecticut to reunite with family.
“Clearly Puerto Rico is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, and Americans are on the verge of failing fellow Americans,” Blumenthal said.
He is pushing for more federal money for immediate relief for Puerto Rico’s residents and a “Marshall Plan,” to help with the island’s reconstruction similar to the one the United States launched at the end of World War II to help Western Europe.
“There’s needs to be a major relief package and longer-term recovery plan,” Blumenthal said.
Because their homeland is a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. But they lack political clout because they cannot vote in presidential elections and their representative to Congress is a non-voting delegate.
Blumenthal, however, is optimistic his colleagues will increase federal help to the island.
“There’s bipartisan agreement we cannot abandon Puerto Rico,” he said.
The Democratic senator said he was told by military officials that the number of U.S. troops on the island, now under 10,000, will grow to 17,000. But he said there was no timeline for the increased deployment.
He also said the Army Corps of Engineers did not provide a timeframe for its rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s destroyed power grid. He said about 90 percent of the island still lacks power.
Blumenthal said the Trump administration’s initial response to the crisis caused by the hurricane was too little, too late. But he praised federal officials, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. military and elsewhere, for their efforts.
President Donald Trump, who visited Puerto Rico last week, has touted his administration’s efforts.
“Nobody could have done what I’ve done for #PuertoRico with so little appreciation,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “So much work!”
Blumenthal took a bipartisan congressional trip to San Juan on Saturday, then flew with his Senate colleagues over the island on a Black Hawk helicopter to have a first-hand look at Maria’s impact.
“We saw heartbreaking devastation,” Blumenthal said. “Homes completely destroyed by the thousands, roads blocked, power transmission lines down, entire towns leveled.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked Congress on Monday for another $1.4 billion in funding beyond the Trump administration’s request last week to help Puerto Rico recover.
In a step that could impede recovery efforts, the Trump administration’s 10-day waiver of the Jones Act has expired. That federal law requires that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by American-owned and operated ships, which are more expensive vessels than others in the global marketplace. That’s meant that Puerto Rico pays more for the costs for goods from the U.S. mainland compared to neighboring islands.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Monday called for a permanent repeal of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico.
“Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law,” he said. “Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”
Blumenthal held an event in Hartford Monday with some hurricane victims who have arrived in Connecticut to stay with family members and with local school superintendents who are preparing for an influx of new students as their families resettle in the state.
The senator said the new arrivals spoke of a lack of food and fresh water and other hardships.
“They are coming to Connecticut by the hundreds,” Blumenthal said. “One of my major fears is that the people with talent, skills and good work ethics will leave the island.”
Janette Hernandez and her husband Pedro Bermudez moved to Puerto Rico in 2013, after Bermudez retired as a teacher with the Hartford school system.
They returned to their home in East Hartford, which Hernandez had left to her daughter, last Thursday because Hernandez said Maria “went right through the center of their home in Yabucoa, P.R., destroying several rooms in the back of the structure.
Hernandez, who grew up in Hartford, said she hopes to help relatives and friends on the island by lobbying Congress and trying to make sure relief supplies reach smaller communities that still have not received help.
“We asked ‘how can we help them?'” Hernandez said. “We figured we could do it better here.”
Like many who are fleeing the storm’s wrath, Hernandez and Bermudez have family in Connecticut.
Blumenthal said Puerto Rico’s “brain drain” could be exacerbated by the U.S. territory’s dire financial straits.
“Puerto Rico will run out of cash within three to six months,” Blumenthal said.