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Congress Seeks Action on Energy in Puerto Rico

With Hurricane Season 2018 officially beginning, Congress is increasingly talking about Puerto Rico. A lot of the conversations focus on energy.

Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has committed to holding a hearing on Puerto Rico in his committee before the end of the month. “We need to look at what the federal government needs to do to ensure that we will have abundant energy provided for the people of Puerto Rico,” Bishop said. “If you have a problem with the quality of life in any way, and if any deaths were caused by the lack of energy, then rebuilding and redoing the energy [grid] has to be the prime consideration.”

Bishop’s comments followed release of a study suggesting that thousands of deaths after Hurricane Maria were attributable to lack of stable electricity. People who needed home oxygen treatments, dialysis, and other electricity-reliant medical treatments died in larger than expected numbers in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced, in response to the Harvard study, that they plan to request an independent commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricane Maria’s destruction in Puerto Rico. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) reported that she and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) “wrote to the GAO asking for an audit of how Puerto Rico conducted its death toll count.”

“But,” Rep. Velazquez continued, “we must go deeper. We need an analysis of how this low death count may have shaped the inadequate federal response.”

The question of energy has been a particular focus of concerns about the federal response to the disaster in Puerto Rico. As of this writing, 95.20% of households and businesses in Puerto Rico have electricity in place. That means that nearly 5% — some 175,000 — still are without electricity nine months after the hurricane.

While the obsolete systems in place before the hurricanes, the logistics issues involved in reaching rural areas, and federal regulations like the Stafford Act are generally given the blame, not everyone is satisfied.

Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ruben Galego (D-AZ), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Darren Soto (D-FL) wrote a letter to Chairman Bishop asking for a hearing which would consider the widely varying estimates of the death toll. The letter asked that the committee help “take steps to correct any outstanding inadequacies.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico. “The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion,” she said at a White House news briefing. “We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico, and we’ll continue to do so.”

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