Congress Questions Whitefish Contract, Praises NOAA, Urges More Resources for Puerto Rico

Yesterday, members of Congress shared remarks about ongoing Huricane Maria relief efforts. In the Senate, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) spoke of historic injustices faced by Puerto Rico, and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) emphasized the need to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid in a more resilient and sustainable way.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA) praised the efforst of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Operations Center, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) spoke of the hurricane’s human toll, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) criticized the Whitefish energy deal and sent a letter to the Director of the FBI Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the matter, and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) brought home the real world implications of Puerto Rico’s lack of voting rights in Congress.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT):

Madam President, I rise today to talk about the dire humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico and to challenge this country to end a century of discrimination against the Puerto Rican people. While the fleeting media attention may have waned, the desperation of the people of Puerto Rico has not. The lackluster response from the Trump administration is an outrage. It has been more than a month since the hurricane, and 80 percent of the island’s electricity is still out. Roads and bridges have collapsed. Homes have been destroyed. Of the 67 hospitals that are open, less than half of them are operating with electricity. Families are searching far and wide for clean drinking water, and some have been drinking water from wells at a Superfund site. This kind of inhumane response would never ever be permitted in a U.S. State. But one doesn’t even have to look at other States to evaluate this response; we can look abroad. Within 2 weeks of the earthquake in Haiti, there were 17,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in that country. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in the United States, the United States had deployed only 10,000 troops to respond to the disaster in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

News broke yesterday that the state owned electric company on the island, PREPA, refused to operationalize mutual aid agreements with electric companies on the U.S. mainland. That is a standard step in normal disaster response. Fault lies with PREPA, but how on Earth did FEMA and the Trump administration allow that to happen, leaving millions of Puerto Ricans in the dark and in danger for almost a month? It is beyond comprehension, and it speaks to the failure of the U.S. Government’s response. The truth is that Hurricane Maria exposed far more than just immediate physical damage; the hurricane also laid bare a very simple truth that is plain to every resident of the island and every Puerto Rican living in my State. The truth is this: The United States has been screwing Puerto Rico for over 100 years, and this is just the latest, most disgusting chapter. There is an undercurrent in the discourse about Puerto Rico that is as pernicious as it is ahistorical. You will hear people, like President Trump, say that Puerto Ricans are wholly responsible for the financial mess they find themselves in and that Puerto Rico should just pull itself up by its bootstraps. The rewriting of history ignores the fact that the Federal Government and Congress have had our hands tightly wrapped around those very bootstraps since 1898.

The United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain through the Treaty of Paris in 1898, when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War. Puerto Ricans didn’t ask to be part of the United States; we acquired the island. A century ago, Congress extended U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans. In 1950, Congress recognized the island’s limited authority over internal governance, and Puerto Rico became formally known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Being a commonwealth or a territory is permanent second-class status. Without access to the same healthcare reimbursement, the same infrastructure funding, the same education dollars as other States, Puerto Rico starts every single race 50 feet behind the rest of America. These built-in disadvantages are designed to hold Puerto Rico back. They have been in place for 100 years to keep Puerto Rico from being a true economic competitor with the mainland.

Believe me, the Puerto Rican people have done everything they can to overcome this discriminatory treatment. There is an entrepreneurial, never-say die spirit in Puerto Rico. I know this because no State has a greater percentage of residents with Puerto Rican roots than Connecticut. But despite the strength of the Puerto Rican people, they are stuck because Washington has tied their hands behind their backs by taking away the right to vote in Federal elections, virtually guaranteeing that Puerto Rico’s economic disadvantage will never ever be remedied. It is a black hole from which Puerto Rico and the other four U.S. territories can never escape. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens—despite the fact that recent polling suggests that half of Americans don’t know this—but they can’t vote for President. They have no voting representation in Congress. Think about it this way: Americans with a mainland address can vote if they move to Mongolia or Sierra Leone, but if they temporarily take up residence in a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico, they miraculously lose their right to vote.

There are real, practical consequences to this lack of representation. We are watching the most egregious example right now. Do you really think that if Puerto Rico had two U.S. Senators, 80 percent of the island would still be without power a month after the hurricane? By the way, Puerto Rico has more citizens than 21 States that have a total of 42 Senators in this body. Do you think a President would denigrate and insult Puerto Rico the way President Trump has if it had electoral votes? The botched response to Maria is just the latest attack on the island, perpetuated by a Congress that can afford to ignore a big part of the United States that has no voice in Congress to object. For over six decades, the U.S. Navy pummeled the island of Vieques, just off Puerto Rico’s coast, with ordnance, using it as a bombing range for military exercises. Those weapons allegedly contained uranium, napalm, and Agent Orange. Today, people who live on Vieques are eight times more likely to have cardiovascular disease and seven times more likely to die of diabetes than others in Puerto Rico. Cancer rates on Vieques are much higher.

If you want to know why Puerto Rico has been in a decade-long recession, look no further than Congress. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Government launched several initiatives to help spur economic growth on the island. It was a good thing. Ironically enough, the initiatives were collectively called Operation Bootstrap. One of the tools that were used to spur economic growth was a tax break to allow U.S. manufacturing companies to avoid corporate income taxes on profits that were made in Puerto Rico. Manufacturers descended on the island in droves, and the entire economy in Puerto Rico became oriented around those companies. But what Congress gives, Congress can take away, especially if the entity you are taking from has no meaningful representation in Congress. In 1996, Congress phased out the tax breaks. Guess what. It sucked the island’s tax base away, cratering Puerto Rico’s economy for the next two decades. It is worth noting that Puerto Rico is not blameless for the financial situation that it is in. There definitely has been a fair share of mismanagement on the island. Bad decisions have been made. Saying that Puerto Rico is only a victim of schemes of the mainland is not true. But the same can be said of fiscal mismanagement and bad decisions in other U.S. States. But a century of under investment in Puerto Rico has been a big part of the story as to how they arrived at this situation. And unlike all those other U.S. States, Puerto Rico has no way of rectifying the past misdeeds because its toolbox to reckon with its past is limited to what Congress sticks in the toolbox, and that toolbox doesn’t provide access to the Bankruptcy Code.

As a result, Congress passed PROMESA, which created this financial oversight board on the island. Puerto Rican bondholders on Wall Street, who bought the bonds for pennies on the dollar, are now challenging the current oversight board’s legitimacy, with the hope of being paid before the island gets relief. These practices of the bondholders, who have been circling the island for years, are made more menacing because they are spending boatloads of money lobbying Congress. Just watch TV at night in Washington, DC, to see their ads. They know that the people of Puerto Rico have no voice here, have no votes here. Now it looks as though other predators are circling. News came out this week that a small, two-person company in Whitefish, MT, somehow, some way, got a no-bid $300 million contract to restore power in Puerto Rico from the island’s power authority—the same power authority that refused the help of experienced electric companies that actually know how to turn the power back on. How does something like this happen? It turns out that the little town in Montana is the home of the new Secretary of the Interior.

Get ready, because this is just the start. President Trump and his billionaire cronies are going to use this disaster to enrich themselves. The Whitefish power contract given to a friend of the Secretary of Interior—with two people employed at that company—is just a scratch on the surface of what is to come. Puerto Rico has been getting screwed for decades. None of this is new. None of this is unpredictable. If you think this is just one century-long string of rough luck, you are ignoring the last critical aspect of Puerto Rican history. Back in 1901, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that even though residents of the territories lived in the United States, they shouldn’t be able to enjoy full constitutional protections, the Supreme Court was pretty explicit about why these citizens in places like Puerto Rico deserved this second-class treatment. Justice Henry Brown, who authored the separate but equal doctrine, held that Puerto Rico and the other territories didn’t need to be afforded full rights under the Constitution because the islands were ‘‘inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought.’’ That, my friends, is racism defined. And it is both past and present when it comes to the rationale for the historical and continued mistreatment of the people of Puerto Rico.

It is time for that mistreatment to change—not just by doing right by Puerto Rico at this moment, at their hour of need. Yes, it is time for President Trump to command that FEMA and the U.S. military and the powers that be in Puerto Rico turn the lights back on right now. Congress should give Puerto Rico every cent they need. I am glad that we came together this week to approve the latest round of emergency aid, but it is long past time that we addressed the second-class treatment we have given the people of Puerto Rico for decades. Even that racist 1901 Supreme Court decision contemplated that the territories’ unequal status could only be justified temporarily. It is time to untie the hands of the Puerto Rican people and ensure that they have full economic and political rights. I hope my colleagues will join me in this conversation in the coming months. It is just as important as the one we are having on emergency response because if anything good can come from the disaster of Hurricane Maria, maybe it is that.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN):

Mr. President, I rise to talk about the devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and the need to rebuild the electric grid in a more resilient and sustainable way. Over the last few months, communities around the country have been devastated by natural disasters. We have had terrible hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as tragic wildfires across the West. These communities need immediate help, and that is why the disaster supplemental appropriations bill we passed yesterday is so important. I am glad this bill provides nearly $19 billion to replenish FEMA’s emergency disaster accounts that help communities start to rebuild, but it is just a down payment. As we know, it will take a lot more Federal assistance. One thing we need to focus on is the electric grid. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria demonstrated the risks the electric grid faces from extreme weather. The communities hardest hit in Texas and Florida underwent days— sometimes much longer—without any power, and when this happens, it is a serious risk to the safety and health of everyone in the area. Now, American citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are facing a major humanitarian crisis, and the Federal Government needs to do everything it can to assist.

More than a month after Hurricane Maria hit, only 25 percent of Puerto Rico has access to electricity, and it will take many months to get power back to those communities. That is completely unacceptable. Without electricity, pumping stations can’t supply drinking water to households. In fact, 25 percent of the island still lacks access to potable water. Without electricity, wastewater treatment facilities can’t operate, which means raw sewage is contaminating rivers and streams. Without electricity, cell towers cease to function, making communication with first responders difficult. Without a stable electric grid, hospitals have to rely on backup power to keep lifesaving equipment working. That backup power is often diesel generators that require fuel, which is in short supply. Given the dire situation, it is no surprise that we have already seen tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans leave the island, with nearly 60,000 arriving in Florida alone.

The majority of the transmission and distribution lines were destroyed in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We need to rebuild them, and I think we can all agree they should be rebuilt to withstand the next disaster. So let’s rebuild the electric grid in a more resilient and sustainable way that reduces future threats and future costs. I have been talking with my Republican colleagues and members of the administration, and everyone agrees this is a good idea. That is why I want to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to include language in the next supplemental disaster aid package that does exactly this. I am talking about investing in a more modern and more decentralized grid so that not everyone is relying on a handful of power plants that can go down. Decentralized energy resources operating in micro grids are more likely to remain functioning during and after storms. There are many instances of distributed energy keeping important facilities online after natural disasters, including the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical complex in the world, which has a combined heat and power plant that kept running during Hurricane Harvey. That is because during extreme weather, these technologies can go into island mode or operate independent of the grid.

Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have some of the highest electricity prices in the United States, and that is because they rely on oil, coal, and gas that must be shipped from the mainland. While these islands do not have fossil fuels, do you know what they do have? Lots of Sun. And the rapidly declining costs of distributed clean energy technologies such as solar, wind, energy efficiency, and battery storage, in many instances make them more affordable than existing power generation, which means these clean energy technologies could help reduce prices. These investments will also save money in the long run. In 2005, the National Institute of Building Sciences completed a study for FEMA that found that every dollar invested in disaster preparedness and resilience saves $4 in future avoided losses. We know we are going to see more hurricanes and extreme weather events, so let’s rebuild in such a way that impacts are not as severe the next time around. Let’s protect people and save taxpayer money. That is my message: Let’s protect people, and let’s all save taxpayer money and do the thing that makes sense.

Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA):

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to bring attention to the critical and lifesaving work being done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center. On September 23, I had a front row seat flying into the eye of Hurricane Maria as it headed toward Puerto Rico and the coastal United States. I rode through the hurricane aboard a NOAA P–3 Orion operated by the highly specialized workforce of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, civilian technicians, meteorologists from NOAA, and others, who have safely navigated these hurricanes for decades. The P–3’s instruments collect and transmit real time weather data from storms far out to the sea back to the mainland. This data is critical for hurricane forecasters used by the American public and emergency managers.

Providing the most accurate forecasts of hurricane track and intensity, as early as possible, is the focus of these flights. Whether a strong hurricane directly hits a major U.S. city or weakens and spins out to sea with minimal impacts is a question that can impact billions of dollars and thousands of lives. These flights are vital to protect our Nation’s lives and property. In addition to the P–3 hurricane hunter I flew in, NOAA also has a G–IV jet that goes high above the storm. The specialized instrumentation on NOAA hurricane aircraft provides critical storm data. The dual-channel tail doppler radars provide three-dimensional views of the storm.

These advanced technology tools make NOAA’s fleet a critical resource to safeguard lives and property when hurricanes threaten our shores. There is no doubt that this has been a challenging hurricane season for the country, with Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in Louisiana and Texas, Hurricane Irma impacting Florida, and Hurricane Maria devastating Puerto Rico. NOAA’s aircraft have performed tirelessly throughout these events. Over a 4-week period, two NOAA hurricane aircraft flew over 300 hours and dropped over 500 weather probes into these storms. After the hurricanes pass, NOAA’s work is not done. NOAA’s fleet of light aircraft perform poststorm damage assessments, taking high resolution images that enable limited emergency response resources to be delivered to the most critical areas.

NOAA’s King Air aircraft emergency response efforts to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have resulted in more than 1.7 billion requests for damage assessment images. In total, more than 65,000 images were collected, covering more than 24,000 square kilometers of impacted areas. Think about that. These images allow emergency managers and the general public to be able to flee quickly, to react quickly, and to assess quickly in these impacted areas. NOAA’s light survey aircraft also perform a diverse set of missions, including river and snow pack surveys essential for flood forecasts and water management; coastal mapping required for safe maritime navigation by commercial, military, and recreational sectors; and fisheries assessments.

NOAA’s aircraft are responsive and flexible, able to deploy at a moment’s notice in support of national disaster response. NOAA aircraft provided critical data and support on scene following the Deepwater Horizon event and over the skies of New York after Hurricane Sandy. NOAA aircraft provide data critical for public safety, economic, and national security. The NOAA aircraft fleet, the NOAA Commissioned Corps, and NOAA civilians are an invaluable natural resource, and it is one that we have a duty to maintain. These crews and aircraft require regular updates, readiness training, and technology enhancements that directly benefit us and our country. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the President to ensure that NOAA aircraft fleet has all of the resources they need to safeguard lives and property for decades to come.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY):

Mr. Speaker, imagine waking up with no lights, imagine waking up with no running water, you cannot bathe yourself, you cannot feed your children, you get so desperate that you break into chemically contaminated water, into untreated sewage water, you are on dialysis, Mr. Speaker, and there is still no electricity, or you are running out of medication and supplies in hospitals that are very low. What I am describing to you, Mr. Speaker, is not a dream. It is a living nightmare, and it has been a living nightmare in Puerto Rico for over a month. For over 4 weeks, while we now begin to focus and speak about tax reform and how this Congress attempts to assist the 1 percent—the wealthiest, the well-heeled—with a handsome tax break, with the elimination of the estate tax, when we attempt to shelve, to forget, to turn our head on this nightmare unfolded in Puerto Rico, it continues to be a living nightmare.

That doesn’t stop there, Mr. Speaker. Puerto Rico could lose funding also for thousands of low-income housing units if power to the island isn’t restored soon. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes 203 housing projects on the island, is prohibited by law from providing Section 8 assistance to buildings that are not decent, safe, and sanitary. Every day that Puerto Rico goes without resources, potable water, medication, and electricity, the situation becomes more dangerous and the death tolls continue to go up. This has now become, Mr. Speaker, our Caribbean Katrina. The official death toll reported by the government increased today to 49 deaths, but many folks fear that it is much higher than that, after confirming a death due to leptospirosis. According to the CDC, leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. Without treatment, this disease can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. To date, the island has reported 76 possible cases of the disease. Investigative reporting from various sources have tallied up deaths to potentially north of 450 people. As of Friday, October 6, at least 14 people have committed suicide in Puerto Rico. They are traumatized and in distress. This is our Caribbean Katrina. A list of 113 people remain missing after Maria’s passage.

I was just in Puerto Rico for the second time this past week with Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. The Congressman and I helped distribute supplies and necessities to Comerio, a small town in a remote part of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico continues to need help. It needs to be woken up from this living nightmare. S.O.S. S.O.S. Get resources to them now. It is our Caribbean Katrina. Let’s own it. Let’s resolve it.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL):

Mr. Speaker, there is something fishy about the Whitefish Energy deal that was reported in The Washington Post. Whitefish Energy, based in Whitefish, Montana, was awarded a $300 million contract to repair and replace the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. We learned that the company is 2 years old and, as of about 6 weeks ago, had just two employees. It does not have a track record of working on massive projects, certainly not one as massive as rebuilding the power grid in Puerto Rico after a once-in-a-century storm like Hurricane Maria. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority did not solicit bids for this contract. They did not do what most power utilities do under these circumstances, which is rely on mutual assistant relationships with other power companies.

In Florida and in Texas—and in Illinois, for that matter—after a big storm, power companies from around the country send linemen and other workers to assist the local company. But that is not happening here. The Florida Power and Light Company brought in 20,000 workers after Irma and, apparently, was willing to send workers to Puerto Rico and help, but the request for help never came. So what is going on here? A tiny company that does not have a track record gets one of the biggest contracts to help rebuild Puerto Rico in a no-bid, out-of-the-ordinary contracting procedure. That is why I wrote yesterday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray, because I want them to investigate this deal, how it was awarded, why this company got the contract, and whether there is any evidence of it being a sweetheart, corrupt deal to boost business allies and political allies of the President and members of his Cabinet.

I also plan to bring this issue up to the Oversight Committees in this body. On the surface, the Whitefish Energy deal looks fishy, but when you look a little deeper, the Whitefish Energy deal looks corrupt. Whitefish Energy is based in Whitefish, Montana. Guess what. That is the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who used to represent Montana in this body. His son even worked for the company. The chief executive of Whitefish Energy, Andy Techmanski, knows Secretary Zinke; but as a spokesperson for the Interior Department said yesterday, in Whitefish, ‘‘everybody knows everybody.’’ Guess what. That doesn’t make me feel any better about the deal. Go a little deeper and you find out that Whitefish Energy is financed by HBC Investments, which is a private equity firm founded by Joe Colonnetta, who holds the title of general partner. The Daily Beast reported that Colonnetta gave $20,000 to the Trump Victory PAC, maxed out on contributions to Trump for his Presidential campaign in the primaries and general elections, about $32,000, then another $30,000 that he gave to the Republican National Committee. Kimberly Colonnetta, his wife, was also a maximum donor, meaning she gave the maximum allowed by law during the 2016 election to Trump and his various committees.

Now, please look here, and the pictures are right off the Internet. They certainly add additional evidence to the idea that Whitefish and the Colonnettas are pretty chummy with our President and his Cabinet. Right here is Mr. Colonnetta with the President of the United States, the two Colonnettas at the inauguration, and a picture of Mrs. Colonnetta with Ben Carson, one of the President’s Cabinet members. Don’t forget, all you kids out there watching at home on C–SPAN, what you post on Facebook stays there forever. Now, I know that not everything that looks corruption is in fact corruption. Sometimes what looks fishy on the surface turns out to be legit, but most of the time, you know what, it turns out to be corruption.

The reason this matters so much is that, without electricity, we can’t get water restored to the people of Puerto Rico. Water doesn’t flow uphill without pumps, and those pumps need power. You cannot live without water; you die. Dialysis machines, electrical wheelchairs, refrigeration for baby formula, insulin for diabetics, chemotherapy for those with cancer all require electricity. It is a matter of life and death. I was just there and saw the suffering of the people in the villages and towns across the island of Puerto Rico. Without electricity, we cannot get Puerto Ricans back to work rebuilding their island and beginning to end the suffering. Look, the last thing we and the people of Puerto Rico need right now is a fat cat lining his pockets with money because they are well connected.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD):

That is not even to get into the question of admitted obstruction of justice, bragging about the fact that he had fired the FBI Director because he was involved in the Russia investigation; not even talking about the rampant abuse of power that we see as recent as this week with apparently corrupt dealings in terms of the Puerto Rican rescue, when 80 percent of the island is still without power, and it looks like there are all sorts of sweetheart contracts that are afoot there…

Do you know we have millions of Americans who can’t vote and are not represented in Congress? This anomaly was brought home to us in a very sharp way over the last several weeks with the crisis in Puerto Rico, where people still lack access to medicines that they need, where people—a majority of the population still lacks access to clean water, and power is out for four-fifths of the population. Those are our people. Those are our citizens. Those are Americans in Puerto Rico. But why were they treated differently? Why was there this notorious negligence and lethargy in responding to the plight of people in Puerto Rico? Well, they have no voting representatives in this Chamber or in the United States Senate, so we have got millions of people unrepresented…

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