Puerto Rico is still reeling from the “unprecedented devastation” wreaked more than a year ago by Hurricane Maria — and the island is in desperate need of help, its governor said this week.
In a Monday letter addressed to congressional leaders, Gov. Ricardo Rossello described the staggering challenges that Puerto Rico has had to overcome since the September 2017 disaster. He beseeched lawmakers to immediately increase federal funding and other assistance to the territory.
“Time is of the essence, and continued action by Congress now is critical,” the governor wrote.
Rossello said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had, earlier this year, withdrawn its full funding of some emergency work including debris removal, building demolition and the provision of temporary generators. An appeal to reinstate this funding had been rejected, he said, even though “significant emergency response work remains to be done on the island.”
More than 15,000 properties require demolishing and “millions of cubic yards of debris” need to be cleaned up, Rossello noted, adding that “numerous critical health and safety facilities on the island still rely on generator power to ensure safety and continuity.”
Rossello implored Congress to reinstate full FEMA funding for these recovery needs. He also asked for two more years of emergency Medicaid funding totaling more than $3 billion, as well as additional disaster funding for Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program and tax credits for some investments.
“While everyone wishes the pace of recovery would have been faster, the magnitude of our losses created an unprecedented challenge for our Island never before faced anywhere else in the United States,” Rossello wrote. “Never before had an entire state been impacted by a catastrophic hurricane ... Never before did a state have to address the challenges of a near 100 percent failure of its power grid, water systems and communications infrastructure.”
These challenges, he added, had been exacerbated by the financial debt crisis facing the territory.
According to a report published in Axios earlier this month, President Donald Trump was considering cutting off federal relief money to Puerto Rico because of a belief, unsupported by any evidence, that the Puerto Rican government was mishandling relief funding and using it to pay off its debts.
In his letter to Congress, Rossello did not address this report directly but stressed that his administration had “worked diligently to ensure full compliance, robust transparency, and accountability in our utilization of federal disaster assistance.”
“We have made clear that federal recovery money should only be used to help Puerto Rico rebuild and recover from the hurricane and not address other fiscal and infrastructure challenges,” he added.
Rossello accused Congress and federal agencies of treating “us differently than other U.S. citizens on the mainland” and holding the territory at a “higher standard.”
“FEMA and the Administration put in place burdensome financial procedures that had never been used for any State or Territory before,” he wrote.
Rossello is among the leading supporters of Puerto Rico’s push for statehood. He’s argued that Puerto Ricans are “treated like second-class citizens” and that statehood is the best way for the island’s 3 million residents to get the rights and recognition they deserve.
The U.S., he told MSNBC in September, cannot claim to be the “standard-bearer of democracy while carrying colonial territories in the 21st century.”
“How can you go to Cuba or to Venezuela and preach democracy when you have over 3 million U.S. citizens disenfranchised?” Rossello said.