Washington Watch – Hurricane María Special Edition

By Jennice Fuentes / Fuentes Strategies

The Long Game Special Edition: Hurricane María

Today’s section of the Long Game is written from the heart, and in contribution to the growing narrative around the challenges facing my beloved Puerto Rico. Less than a week ago, Hurricane María devastated the Island, exploiting every possible weakness in infrastructure and geography to tear down generations of homes and businesses. The storm erased what small progress the Island had made towards restarting its economy, severely limiting economic activity and exacerbating the impact of Puerto Rico’s historic public debt crisis.

The question I’m asking myself and others is: how can we, as stakeholders in Puerto Rico’s success, come together to enable and empower Puerto Ricans to engage the federal government on behalf of the Island? How might we work together to rebuild communities, streetscapes, and businesses? I have no doubt that residents of the Island are up to any and every challenge that they might face. As policymakers and influencers, we should ensure that we’re up to those challenges, too.

Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.

Spotlight on Puerto Rico

Hurricane María Decimates Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, leaves entire Island without power for the 6th day in a row; Water scarce, mobile communications non-existent.

Puerto Ricans woke up last Thursday to the devastating reality that the Island they once knew is no longer. Countless homes, businesses, parks, bridges, and critical infrastructure were wiped out by Hurricane Maria’s 155 mile-per-hour winds. The eye of the historic storm crisscrossed the entire archipelago of Puerto Rico. The Government continues to warn that residents should expect a delay of at least 4-6 months until electricity is back online. As of this writing, 99% of the Island has no electricity—there are extremely limited exceptions, such as a few hospitals and surrounding areas. The United States Postal Service may not be able to resume operations until October 5 and FedEx and UPS may be similarly challenged.

There have been at least 13 confirmed deaths reported, but the telecommunications towers are down and many municipalities have been incommunicado since Wednesday. The FCC reported Friday that 92.5% of cell sites are down in Puerto Rico. Other reports say that 25% of cell service is back, (mostly in the metropolitan area) but most stateside Puerto Ricans complain that they cannot yet reach relatives on the Island.

Only 25% of water service is back online and the government is still addressing flash flood situations that have wiped out entire towns. The municipality of Yabucoa, for example, reportedly lost 90% of its housing units. The biggest immediate danger is the imminent breakdown of the Guajataca dam, imperiling the homes of 70,000 people that live along the Guajataca River. The Government has been evacuating area residents, and has stated that the dam is likely to fail at any moment.

As of today, this hurricane is calculated to have cost several billions of dollars in damages and lost economic activity. That figure is expected to grow exponentially as communication is reestablished and a more accurate assessment takes place. Finally, President Donald Trump issued a disaster zone declaration covering 55 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. He also said he would visit the Island to survey the damage.

FOB authorizes Puerto Rico to shift $1 billion from austerity to emergency relief

The Financial Oversight Board (FOB) on Thursday wrote a letter to Governor Ricardo Rosselló authorizing his government to use $1 billion from the Commonwealth’s own money towards disaster relief efforts. Most of the $1 billion was held in savings accounts required by the FOB-approved budget and fiscal plan.

The federal judge appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts to oversee Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring proceedings, Judge Laura Taylor Swain, granted a request by the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF in Spanish) to postpone Title III bankruptcy proceedings until further notice due to the storm. She also asked if the parties preferred to meet in Boston for mediation proceedings spearheaded by Magistrate Judith Dein; that decision is yet to be made.

Congressman Gutiérrez, other U.S. officials request immediate federal action

Chicago Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, who is Puerto Rican, called on President Trump to waive state matching fund requirements for federal emergency grants awarded to Puerto Rico. He also called on House Speaker, Paul Ryan, and Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, to organize a bipartisan Congressional delegation to visit Puerto Rico and see the damages first hand, and to better inform anticipated emergency funding bills. Paul Ryan has said he would like to visit Puerto Rico to assess damages before determining the amount of money the Island needs, but acknowledged that Congress also needs to appropriate additional funds for Texas, Florida and the US Virgin Islands.

In addition, U.S. Reps. Soto, Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo, and others wrote to several agency heads asking them to dedicate all necessary resources to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. On the other side of the Capitol, Sens. Warren, Gillibrand, Booker, Schumer, and Menéndez wrote to the President to ask for full funding and active emergency relief for Puerto Rico.

New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo visited Puerto Rico this weekend and brought emergency items requested by the Governor of Puerto Rico. New York City Mayor, Bill De Blasio, also promised to bring help and bring a delegation from the city to the Island.

In addition, the 43 most influential national Hispanic groups issued a call to action asking the federal government for immediate emergency assistance and to award Puerto Rico economic tools to climb out of the enormous economic and fiscal recession the Island has been facing for the last ten years. Gutiérrez and New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez have both called for an exemption of the Jones Act, in particular, in the wake of the storm. After Hurricane Irma, which also caused damage in Puerto Rico, the Trump Administration issued a temporary Jones Act waiver, which it later extended, for fuel products to be shipped in foreign flagged ships from U.S. ports.

Authorities are urging family in the US to abstain from flying to Puerto Rico. According to Agustín Arellano, CEO of Aerostar, the managing company of San Juan Airport, terminals A and B are severely damaged. International travel may not resume until Wednesday, if that. Flights are very limited. It is urged that you only go to the airport if you have a ticket and even then you may not be able to get on the flight.

HOW TO HELP

Click HERE for a comprehensive list of certified non-profit organizations that are doing phenomenal work on the ground to assist in the emergency relief and recovery efforts. Donating to these organizations is the most effective and immediate way for you to help. On behalf of the Fuentes Strategies team, we thank you in advance for your generosity. #HelpPuertoRicoNow

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