Puerto Rico Edges Toward A ‘Humanitarian Crisis,’ While A Congressional Aid Package Could Take Weeks

Getty Image

Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm that left horrendous flooding and infrastructure failure in its wake and killed 10 people. The aftermath may prove to be as deadly, for Maria knocked out power to 100% of the island, and residents also lack gas and running water while facing dwindling food supplies. Governor Ricardo Rossello has made numerous public pleas for aid to the Pentagon and Congress as his residents face months without power restoration. Rossello now describes the U.S. territory as sitting on the brink of a “humanitarian crisis”:

“Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, can turn into a humanitarian crisis. To avoid that, recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens; when we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally.”

Yet the U.S. hasn’t completely left Puerto Rico in the lurch. FEMA is on the ground, and the National Guard (courtesy of some states) has made efforts to bring supplies to ailing residents, although the no-communication factor (zero internet and barely any cell service) has hampered efforts. Speaking of cell service, some pockets of airwaves do exist along the island’s highways, where people have gathered in hopes of hearing that their relatives are safe.

Meanwhile, Congress has been hammering things out with House Speaker Paul Ryan issuing assurances that they’re working on it, but the new fiscal year doesn’t begin until October 1. Further, Congressional leaders state that they cannot act without damage assessments and “a formal disaster request from the Trump administration.” These requirements probably won’t be fulfilled until sometime in the first half of October, and FEMA will hit funding roadblocks before then (more on that later).

To further complicate matters, Puerto Rico’s precarious economy (following a decade-long recession) could translate into impossible-to-meet conditions on any federal aid they receive:

Puerto Rico essentially declared bankruptcy earlier this year, by a procedure that Congress made possible last summer. Should the Federal Emergency Management Agency waive its typical requirement that localities pay a 25 percent match for federal aid dollars? Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the island’s nonvoting congressional representative, says it should. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and Robert Menendez have endorsed that idea.

Later on, the fiscal control board put in place by that law will have to decide whether to continue with its austerity program, which is projected to inflict several more years of recession in order to keep paying off the island’s debts.

Likewise, FEMA is stretching its available resources while “drawing from the same $15.3 billion pot of money” that Congress approved for Hurricane Harvey and Irma relief efforts in Houston and Florida. Still, FEMA head Brock Long has delivered 700 personnel to Puerto Rico, where they have delivered “more than 1.5 million meals, 1.1 million liters of water and nearly 12,000 emergency roofing kits.” It’s understood, however, that FEMA will soon run out of cash, given all of the ongoing hurricane recovery operations along the U.S. Gulf and East Coasts.

As for President Trump, he finally tweeted about Puerto Rico (after being roundly called out for ignoring the U.S. territory on Twitter while obsessing over football and the national anthem) on Monday night. He acknowledged the deepening crisis but also managed to slam the country’s “massive debt … owed to Wall Street and the banks, which sadly must be dealt with.”

(Via New York Times, Miami Herald, NBC News & Slate)