Millions of Puerto Ricans have gone months without power. Many of the island’s roads and water systems remain destroyed. While the official death toll from Hurricane Maria remains at 64, recent reports have suggested that the actual number of casualties may be far greater.
Now the island is facing more potential hardship. During a visit to Boston on Tuesday, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló decried the Republican tax plan making its way through Congress, saying it includes provisions that would devastate the island’s already-battered economy.
Bills in the House and Senate treat Puerto Rico — a US territory whose residents are American citizens —
The House bill would impose a 20 percent tax, while the Senate version calls for a 12.5 percent rate. Rosselló and others have warned that the increase could cost Puerto Rico’s already struggling manufacturing sector an additional 250,000 jobs.
“Are you really going to penalize Puerto Rico . . . at our worst possible time?” Rosselló said in an interview with The Boston Globe.
Rosselló attended a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on how Puerto Rico and other hurricane-ravaged islands can best rebuild and later met with Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston.
At a State House news conference, Rosselló urged Congress to provide funding to help the island rebuild.
“What we’re asking for is equal treatment,” he said. “Equal treatment for the US citizens of Puerto Rico to those in Texas, Florida, California, US Virgin Islands, so that we can have the opportunity to rebuild better and stronger than before.”
The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, meanwhile, unanimously approved a measure that will allow students from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands who were displaced by Hurricane Maria to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
It’s unclear how many of those students have enrolled at state schools. But as of Friday, 1,866 students who left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria had enrolled in elementary schools and high schools across Massachusetts, state officials said.
Family resource centers, which help people apply for state and federal benefits, have served about 3,800 people from Puerto Rico since the hurricane, according to the state.
“We have been able and will continue to work with our colleagues in the nonprofit and municipal community to welcome folks from Puerto Rico who are looking to find a place to make sure that they can continue to educate their kids, and deal with their family and life and professional issues, as the island goes through the process of rebuilding,” Baker said.
Police officers from across Massachusetts have also traveled to Puerto Rico to assist in its recovery. At a news conference Tuesday, three state troopers, Lieutenant Carmelo Ayuso and troopers Luis DeJesus and Eugene Lawrence, described their relief work. All three have relatives in Puerto Rico, and Ayuso and DeJesus once lived there.
“The amount of damage — it was unbelievable,” said Ayuso, who spent two weeks on the island in November. “It was very emotional for me — still is — to think about it.”
The men said they worked 12-hour days responding to 911 calls, directing traffic in areas where power outages had knocked out traffic lights, and giving Puerto Rico police officers time off to rebuild their homes and care for their families.
When their shifts ended, troopers distributed water to neighborhoods, Lawrence said. At one stop, Lawrence said a 4-year-old approached his cruiser, which was stocked with candy and cookies, and asked for water.
“He started crying and he said, ‘Agua,’ ” Lawrence said. “You hear something like that, you see that, you’re never the same.”
At MIT, Rosselló said he hoped the university could help provide ideas for how the island should rebuild, especially its badly damaged electricity system.
Rosselló, who studied biomedical engineering and economics at MIT, said he received a commitment from L. Rafael Reif, the university’s president, to help Puerto Rico.
“It’s time to focus on everything,” he said.
Rosselló said his staff is working with medical officials to review each death that has occurred since the hurricane. Some reports have estimated the true death toll will exceed 1,000.
“The official number is going to grow,” he said. “This has been a significant catastrophe, possibly the biggest catastrophe in the modern history of not only Puerto Rico, but all of the United States.”
Rosselló said he hopes MIT will help his administration refine ideas for building an energy system that uses more solar and wind power and can operate even when one part is damaged.
Faculty, students, and others visiting from the Caribbean discussed ways to build homes and other infrastructure that could better withstand future storms. Others suggested that Rosselló might have to make unpopular decisions, such as privatizing the island’s electricity system.
“This isn’t a chin-stroking exercise,” said Robert Stoner, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative. “Something radical has to happen.”