Democrats Urge More Assistance For Puerto Rico As Most Remain Without Power

Topline

Several Democratic lawmakers called for more federal assistance to help Puerto Rico recover from damages caused by Hurricane Fiona on Tuesday, as most of the island remains without power two days after the storm touched down and on the fifth year anniversary of the day Hurricane Maria hit the island.

Key Facts

During a press conference Tuesday, several lawmakers lamented the lack of progress made in repairing Puerto Rico’s power grid, which was left in fragile condition after Hurricane Maria.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (DN.Y.), the first Puerto Rican woman to serve in Congress, said she warned a year ago that the grid was not “where it needed to be,” and “here we are today.”

The situation in Puerto Rico is a “disaster,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) said, adding New York lawmakers have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be ready to approve any requests from Puerto Rico for additional aid, including in the form of a major disaster declaration that would free up long-term recovery funding.

About 89% of the island remains without power, while more than 66% of residents do not have access to drinkable water, Frankie Miranda, the president of the Hispanic Federation said Tuesday, outages that are expected to last several days.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) said during a separate news conference Tuesday he had asked President Joe Biden to make a major disaster declaration, with FEMA chief Deanne Criswell expected to visit the island Tuesday, according to the Washington Post.

Big Number

$21 billion. That’s how much funding lawmakers allocated to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria to help with housing, health care and water, Schumer said. Some $12 billion of those funds were earmarked for rebuilding the power grid, but only 2% of the $21 billion has been spent, according to Schumer. Bureaucratic delays and government staffing issues have slowed the allocation of funds, according to Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.

Tangent

Lawmakers on Tuesday also took aim at former President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria five years ago. Trump drew backlash over a video of him casually tossing rolls of paper towels to people in a crowd at a relief center during a visit to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm. Schumer called Trump’s behavior as well as his administration’s larger response to the disaster “callous,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Tuesday “the time of throwing paper towels and counting it as action is over.”

What To Watch For

Fiona could bring major damage to the islands of the Turks and Caicos, according to forecasts. The hurricane made landfall on the biggest island, Grand Turk, as a Category 3 storm Tuesday morning and is headed towards the eastern Turks and Caicos islands, according to the National Hurricane Center. Fiona is expected to approach Bermuda on Thursday.

Key Background

Fiona has killed at least three people so far, including two in Puerto Rico and one in the French territory of Guadeloupe. The storm has caused extreme flooding, mudslides and other catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico. The storm has also resurfaced previous concerns about Puerto Rico’s vulnerable power grid and the private company that the government contracted to repair it. Hundreds of residents have protested frequent and worsening power outages since the government signed a contract with LUMA to take over management of its electric grid in 2021. Puerto Rican officials may be reconsidering that deal, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing sources familiar with the matter. LUMA’s initial contract expires in November but was expected to be extended for 15 years, although some in the government are preparing for the contract to be canceled early, according to the Journal. The government remains concerned it would struggle to find another operator to agree to a better deal and that an end to the contract could lead to power disruptions, according to the Journal.

Further Reading

Democrats call for more Puerto Rico aid, recall ‘callousness’ of Trump throwing paper towels (Washington Post)

Hurricane Fiona slams Turks and Caicos as Category 3 storm (Reuters)

Puerto Rico Re-Examines Plan to Fix Power Grid as Fiona Cuts Electricity (Wall Street Journal)

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