by Ricardo Soto Miranda, Esq.
Early on Wednesday, September 20th, 2017, two weeks ago, Hurricane Maria, a powerful Category 5 hurricane with 150 mph winds, made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, bisecting the entire island and drenching it with more than 30 inches of rain. What’s happened since has been truly catastrophic for Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria was like a 50-mile-wide tornado that made a direct hit on the island
By the record books, it was the 5th strongest storm ever to hit the US, and the strongest storm to hit the island in 80 years. “The devastation is vast,” Gov. Rosselló said in a statement. “Our infrastructure and energy distribution systems suffered great damages.”
The storm knocked out 80 percent of the island’s power transmission lines. And as of October 3, 2017, nearly all of Puerto Rico’s 1.57 million electricity customers (3.5 million people) were still without power. Many people have generators, and new ones are being distributed, but many homes and businesses are dark because of the ongoing troubles distributing fuel to run the generators. Two weeks after the storm hit, it’s still difficult to find fuel, but the distribution of this products improves every day.
It could be four to six months before power is fully restored on the island. That’s half a year with Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents relying on generators, half a year without air conditioning in the tropical climate, half a year that electric pumps can’t bring running water into homes, half a year when even the most basic tasks of modern life are made difficult.
The storm knocked out 1,360 out of 1,600 cellphone towers on the island. Many communities have been isolated from the outside world for days, relying only on radios for news. The latest report from the Federal Communications Commission finds that 88.8 percent of cell tower sites are still out of service.
Agriculture is a small part of the Puerto Rican economy, just 0.8 percent to its GDP and employing 1.6 percent of its labor force. But it was decimated — in a nearly literal sense of the word — by Hurricane Maria.
FEDERAL RESPONSE, RELIEF AND ASSISTANCE TO PUERTO RICO
The Trump Administration has been heavily criticized for their relief response efforts towards Puerto Rico.
On Wednesday, September 20th, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issues major disaster declarations for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
On Friday, September 22nd, 2017 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo arrived on the island aboard a JetBlue relief flight filled with emergency personnel and supplies. He then joined the Governor of Puerto Rico for a helicopter tour of the island.
On Monday, September 25th, 2017 Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) flew to Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage and recovery efforts. Rubio was accompanied by the island’s delegate to Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón, who thanked the Florida lawmaker for being “our voice in the Senate.”
On Thursday, September 28th, 2017 Florida Governor Rick Scott visited the Island and was able to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. For that reason the Florida Governor declared a state of emergency in every Florida county on Monday, October 2, 2017, to help the state provide services to Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation. In addition, Scott announced disaster relief centers will be set up at Orlando International Airport and in Miami to help those seeking refuge in the Sunshine State.
On September 28th, 2017 the Trump Administration authorized the Jones Act to be waived for Puerto Rico. The Jones Act is an antiquated law that forces Puerto Ricans to pay nearly double for US goods through various fees and taxes. The Act provides that any goods shipped from one American port to another must be on American-made-and-operated ships. This temporary waiver from the law’s requirements, should help somewhat with the immediate disaster relief by allowing cargo ships from other nations to deliver goods to the Island.
FEMA is fully activated with all emergency support functions operational. FEMA holds daily video-teleconference with leadership across various departments and agencies.
There are more than 10,000 federal staff, including more than 700 FEMA personnel, on the ground in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands supporting response and recovery operations.
FEMA Officials in Puerto Rico have established points of distribution for survivors to get meals, water, and other commodities. The National Guard supports commodity distribution.
Power has been restored to the Main Trauma Center in Puerto Rico, the Centro Medico Hospital in San Juan and San Pablo Hospital in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Fuel arrives every day to all hospitals in Puerto Rico running on generators.
DLA, U.S. Northern Command, the U.S. Navy, and USCG, in coordination with the private sector, provide federal support for fuel transportation via air and sea logistical support.
FEMA, working in coordination with federal partners, provide more than 1.5 million meals, 1.1 million liters of water to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria’s landfall.
Two weeks after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane María, President Donald Trump visited the island for the first time as commander in chief.
Air Force One arrived at 11:41 a.m. at the National Guard’s Muñiz Base in Carolina, where strict security measures were employed for the first sitting president to visit the island amid an emergency.
Shortly after landing, Trump held a press conference where he congratulated the work of first responders on the island. He praised Brock Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s director, who Trump said exposed himself to “grave danger.” He also thanked Elaine Duke, the Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security and general Jeff Buchanan who is FEMA’s military liason. He also had kind words to say about Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rossello who Trump says “right at the beginning appreciating what we did” and resident commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez for “saying such nice things about all the people that has worked so hard.”
Then he quipped: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget out of whack, because we have spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico and that’s fine, we’ve saved a lot of lives.” He also stated that Puerto Rico should be “proud” of its low death toll, which increased from 16 to 34 shortly after the president left and is expected to rise.
After his meeting, he toured in and around San Juan, stopping at a church to hand out relief supplies and throwing paper towels into the crowd.
At the end of his visit and during a Fox News interview, President Donald Trump said “We’re going to have to wipe out” Puerto Rico’s debt in the wake of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.
On Wednesday, October 4th, 2017 Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón announced that the House Energy and Commerce Committee earmarked $1 billion for the Puerto Rico health program, which would save 640,000 patients from losing their coverage.
González Colón made the announcement after the Energy and Commerce Committee of the Federal House of Representatives confirmed that the project that funds the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP, by its Spanish acronym) will be considered for voting in the committee on Wednesday and, if passed, the project would be considered next week in the plenary of the Federal Chamber.
SCHIP is a program administered by the Federal Department of Health that provides health insurance for families and children in the states.
This legislation includes an allocation of $ 1 billion to prevent an abyss in the Medicaid program in Puerto Rico until 2019. This will be divided into $880 million available for Puerto Rico until 2019 and $120 million that will become available once the fiscal control board certifies that the government of the island has met certain efficiency and fraud control measures outlined in the law.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration announced the immediate availability of $40 million in “quick release” Emergency Relief (ER) funds to help restore essential service on roads and bridges damaged by Hurricane Maria throughout Puerto Rico.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assigned $76 million dollars towards reconstruction of telecommunications services in Puerto Rico.
CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS PUERTO RICO – OCTOBER 5, 2017
Estimate of damages caused by Hurricane María, that figure could exceed $95 billion.
The number of hurricane-related deaths rose from 16 to 34, including two suicides.
10% of electricity customers have power. The Government expects 30% of customers to have electricity in about one month.
55% of water utility customers have water service.
Telecommunication services have been reestablished by 45% in the Island.
80% of gas stations in the Island are now operational.
The Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU) is now fully operational, 24/7.
100% of hospitals in the Island are now fully operational.
70% of bank branches across the Island are now fully operational.
80% of supermarkets across the Island are now fully operational.
50% of US Postal Service Stations across the Island are now fully operational.
Vice President Pence is schedule to visit Puerto Rico this Friday, October 6, 2017
PATH TOWARDS RECOVERY AND RECONSTRUCTION
The Trump administration is finalizing a $29 billion disaster aid package that combines $16 billion to shore up the government-backed flood insurance program with almost $13 billion in new relief for hurricane victims, according to a senior administration official and top congressional aides.
On October 3, 2017, the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB or PROMESA) sent a letter to Mitchell McConnell, Majority Leader of the Senate, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Charles Schumer, Minority Leader of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives.
In the letter, the FOMB urges Congress to help Puerto Rico and do everything that is possible to help respond and recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Also, the letter outlines the main categories that Congress needs to address for the disaster response and liquidity needs.
The letter includes the following statement: “[T]he FOMB urges Congress to heed the Governor’s calls for the maximum federal assistance to Puerto Rico to help it respond to and to recover from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. This federal assistance should come in the form of grants and reimbursements to assist Puerto Rico in responding to the catastrophic damage it has suffered, and pursuant to an emergency liquidity program, low-interest loans to assist Puerto Rico in responding to its cash-flow deficiencies. Failure to provide the greatest amount of federal aid and the emergency liquidity program will be potentially ruinous.”
The main categories that the Board requests are the following:
- Maximum amount of federal assistance
- Access to an emergency liquidity program
- Parity treatment for Medicaid funding
- Waivers of caps and local share requirements for federal assistance
Of the federal assistance programs that have caps and local share requirements, the Board specifies the following programs:
- Community Disaster Loans Cap
- Waiver of the Cost Share for the Public Assistance program
- Housing Assistance Waivers
- Mortgage and Rental Assistance Program
- Other Needs Assistance Funding
- Hazard Mitigation Grant Program
- Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery
- Access to additional Federal Disaster Relief Programs
- Department of Transportation Emergency Relief program
- Department of Labor Workforce Reinvestment Act, National Emergency Grants.
- Department of Commerce Economic Adjustment Assistance
The Board closes out the letter with the following statement: “United States citizens have been devastated by the likes of a natural disaster the Island has not experienced in a century. We must do all that we can to help Puerto Rico avert a tragedy of historic proportions.”
Puerto Rico’s financial control board announced also it will no longer discuss the reduction of working hours for public employees, at least until next summer. “In the aftermath of the catastrophic storm that has devastated Puerto Rico, the board is postponing any discussion of furloughs until next fiscal year and it is withdrawing its related lawsuit,” the board’s statement reads.
All main Government Agencies of the Government of Puerto Rico are now operational, including the Department of the Treasury, Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Corrections, Department of State and the Economic Development and Commerce Department.
The Legislature of Puerto Rico is expected to resume their legislative sessions by the week of October 9th, 2017.
The Political Agenda to be promoted by the Executive and Legislative Branch in the coming months is the following:
- Economic Development Package gears towards reconstruction and assistance
- Tax Reform to benefit individuals and corporations
- Tax Incentives Laws to promote economic development
- Privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority
- Reduction of Government Size by promoting the privatization of services through Public-Private Partnerships.