The House of Representatives passed a $36.5 billion hurricane and wildfire relief bill that includes a $5 billion loan to Puerto Rico, meaning some relief is coming to that commonwealth. But the island’s plight remains dire. So far, the necessary resources have not been mustered to address Puerto Rico’s short-term challenges — never mind its longer-term financial situation.
It’s unclear if House Speaker Paul Ryan saw the full extent of the damage during his visit to the US territory on Friday. But here’s where things stand: As of Friday, only 9 percent of the island had power, and only about a third of cell phone towers are operating. More than 35 percent of Puerto Rico residents still have no access to drinking water, with some reportedly attempting to drink from Superfund sites, areas designated as the most toxic on US soil. The health care infrastructure has collapsed, with hospitals struggling to stay up and running, putting hundreds of ill patients at risk. There are reports of a disease outbreak. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria’s deadly winds decimated the island’s already fragile infrastructure, its long-term impact is still killing people. The official toll is 45 deaths, but local media report that the number is far higher.
And yet it’s clear Puerto Ricans have been categorized as second-class citizens. President Trump has said that Puerto Rican leaders “want everything to be done for them,” also tweeting, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” He sort of softened his tone later, tweeting passive-aggressively: “The wonderful people of Puerto Rico, with their unmatched spirit, know how bad things were before the H’s. I will always be with them!” Needlessly alienating and insulting some Americans has become par for the course for Trump. Still, the president didn’t show any sign of hesitation about aiding Florida or Texas in the wake of major hurricanes.
All the same, the president is expected to sign the disaster relief bill passed by the House, after the Senate votes on it later this month. It’s a much-needed start. Some of the funding will go to replenish FEMA’s disaster fund, with victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands sharing the money. The most critical assistance to Puerto Rico is the $5 billion Treasury loan, which is earmarked for basic government functions such as payroll and pensions and should ease the government’s short-term liquidity crisis. Puerto Rican government officials project that it will be at least another month until they resume tax collection.
Moody’s estimated that the damage to Puerto Rico from Maria could cost from $45 billion to $95 billion. The federal government has a duty to fully address the island’s recovery with long-term assistance and has other tools to increase emergency aid. For example, it should immediately approve the governor’s requests for grants from Health and Human Services, for the delivery of social services, and from the Department of Transportation, for the repair of roads and public transportation, among other asks.
Congress would not take half-measures with Houston or Florida, and Puerto Rico deserves the full support of its government.