Washington - Although Republicans say they have not ignored the issue, Democrats bet on winning midterm elections to end the immunity they understand the majority in Congress has given President Donald Trump and will thoroughly investigate the federal response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
In the short-term, they want to press from Congress for the release of the promised funds and to examine areas that require new allocations in order to add them - probably after the November 6 elections - to any resolution seeking to re-fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund after Hurricane Florence.
At a time when President Trump praises himself for an "incredible unsung success" for his admistration´s response to the emergency unleashed in Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria a year ago, and insists on minimizes the death toll, his words have clashed with reality.
FEMA and the Office of the Comptroller General (GAO) reports accepted that the federal government had logistics problems along with the lack of supplies and trained personnel to deal with the emergency.
George Washington University study estimated the death toll at 2,975 and stressed that the government of Puerto Rico had no planning to face more than a Category 1 hurricane or alternative communication plans.
About $ 41 billion in federal funds have been allocated to mitigate the disaster caused by Hurricane Maria, however, the government of Puerto Rico warned that the delivery of funds is so slow that they have only received a quarter of the total allocated.
Although the agreement that should allow the disbursement of the first $ 1,5 billion of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) was announced yesterday, the government had not received funds for permanent reconstruction projects.
"We will need additional allocations," said Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González, who believes that good communication, at all levels of the federal government, and the visits of dozens of lawmakers, who could see how the situation has worsened the crisis on the island, allowed to raise awareness about Maria´s impressive destruction.
Beyond the delay in releasing the funds, Commissioner Gonzalez said she is concerned about "the ability to use the funds and invest them on time, so that the funds reach the people."
On the first anniversary of Maria, Republican Senator Marco Rubio (Florida) indicated that it is time to examine the mistakes, so that they would not be repeated in the future, a warning that he made to President Trump yesterday.
"While federal resources were stretched across four major disasters, and the distance to Puerto Rico created logistical challenges that impeded the deployment of federal resources, mistakes were made and we must ensure they are not repeated," stated Rubio in a letter.
In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Rubio said that it was not only the distance between Puerto Rico and the mainland what may have complicated the Trump administration to mobilize basic supplies, but also FEMA model, which depends on having the local government support.
When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Yabucoa a year ago, the island government "did not have the capacity to respond or communicate in some cases," he added.
Moves in favor of the island
Rubio, from the Senate, and Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (New York), from the House, were voices that tried to convince the federal government that it was necessary to place a military commander in charge of the entire rescue operation during the most critical days of the emergency.
"My first letter to President Trump requested a three-star general, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina. We could see that there was no 'expertise' in those first days. All this contributed to unleash a humanitarian crisis," said Congresswoman Velazquez.
According to Rubio, there was as much resistance from the federal bureaucracy as from the government of Puerto Rico that did not want to militarize the response "and there was a thought that if the military responded, it was evidence that the administration (of the island) did not have the capacity to respond".
Rubio, who went to the island three days after the hurricane, said that, initially, the government of Puerto Rico even delayed accepting the deploy of the Navy Hospital Ship USNS Comfort, at a time when health services were very limited due to the loss of power and transportation problems on the island.
Congresswoman Velazquez is the main author of the bill that proposes the creation of an independent commission, such as the one created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to thoroughly investigate the performance of Trump's administration and examine the existing protocols to respond to emergencies caused by natural disasters.
She has also proposed, along with senators such as Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (Vermont), measures in favor of creating a Marshall Plan-type program for the island, which includes canceling a large part of the island's public debt.
Although in Congress they held about 15 hearings on natural disasters in 2017, Democrats want a direct investigation into the response to the island.
"During emergencies, people must have the certainty that the government will be there to help them recover and rebuild. Having a president who is unstable, we have seen how a humanitarian crisis broke out and the lack of quick and direct actions in releasing funds," said Velazquez.
In a report published this month, the Democratic minority in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee maintained that while the Republican majority ordered an investigation into George W. Bush government performance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they are protecting Trump now.
The report indicated that the Committee obtained less than 20,000 pages from federal government offices - compared to the 500,000 collected during the Katrina investigation - and none from the White House.
If Democrats retake the House majority in November, Velazquez anticipates, at least, a Congress in-depht investigation on Trump´s administration actions and the protocols that federal authorities must follow in cases of natural disasters, including the death toll.
"We can (as of January) subpoena officials and ask for documents. The most important thing is to discover the truth about what happened and the actions of those who were in decision-making positions," Velazquez said.
Rubio said he is "in favor of any process that is not politicized," that is devoted to review the mistakes made and to review FEMA's ideal functioning.
Regarding possible new allocations, Rubio announced that the director of the White House Office of Budget and Management, Mick Mulvaney, confirmed that FEMA considers that they will have funds "for the rest of the year," but warned that the cost of the damages to the Carolinas and other east coast areas due to Hurricane Florence is still unknown.
About meeting the Puerto Rican needs, Rubio said that one has to think not only about reconstruction funds, but also about the measures – such as the one that has driven the federal credit for dependent children in Puerto Rico – directed to alleviate the fiscal crisis in the long term.
Democrat Robert Menendez (New Jersey) said that even if they do not win the majority in the Senate, by retaking the House, they will be enough to pressure senators in favor of a thorough investigation on the federal response.
But, he said that it is important to press to speed up the disbursement of the already allocated funds, which will determine the level of recovery.
"Florida faces the same problem," said Senator Rubio, noting that in the Key West area, the most devastated by Hurricane Irma, they have not received "a quarter of what was allocated." "A highly bureaucratic system has been created," Rubio said.
Velazquez thinks that the ghost of the Whitefish scandal - that raised criticism in Congress after the government did not first contact the American Public Power Association to repair the power grid – is still haunting around.
But, she also believes that the case is used by the Republicans as an excuse. "What they have to do is use oversight mechanisms so that there is transparency and strong guidelines for the government of Puerto Rico, with the warning that if there is any kind of corruption there will be many who will end up in jail," stated Velazquez.
The congresswoman - in line with the Democratic leadership on the island´s fiscal issues - wants the governor to maintain better communication with the Democrats to help with future allocations.
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