On November 8, the following representatives offered remarks regarding the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico in the House of Representatives: Rep. Luis Guitierrez (D-IL), Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon (R-PR), and Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA).
Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon (R-PR):
Madam Speaker, I thank the gentleman, my friend, for allowing me actually to speak about what is happening in terms of the USDA—the Department of Agriculture—and all the food programs on the island in terms of disaster, as the gentleman was explaining, how these programs work with the disaster. As we speak, Puerto Rico’s still has 60 percent of the island without power. As we speak, less than 20 percent of our island is having actual running water, problems with communications. The first thing people will say is lack of electricity. They will say the lack of a proper home, when you have got more than 60,000 homes that just lost their roof or even are having a lot of damages. So in that regard, the nutritional assistance provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for disaster relief in Puerto Rico has been indispensable; it has been important. Actually, the continuous communication the Government of Puerto Rico is having with the Department of Agriculture has been the first time, I think, during a disaster in this magnitude.
We are living the 49th day after the hurricane. To make matters worse, for most of our people, the lack of power and the lack of water is just a fraction of the issues. I mean, we have still got a lot of schools that haven’t returned to impart classes. So that means that you have a lot of kids in their homes without going to school, and a lot of several structural damages in the homes, businesses, communities, all around the island. The amount of flooding, roads and bridges that got serious damage or lack functionality is staggering at this time. So the nutritional assistance was a concern since before the hurricanes. I need to say that I appreciate Secretary Perdue having a call with me and different conference calls regarding different programs. First of all, 9 of the 11 programs for disaster in the Department of Agriculture, in terms of the farmers, the territories, will never apply because we are not, in fact, allowed to apply. He made it happen. He used flexibility to allow Puerto Rico to access those programs in terms of the farmer disaster assistance, and I appreciate that.
That happens also with the USDA programs. The USDA officials have been in contact directly, not just with my office, but with the Governor of Puerto Rico, with the local officials since early on when this problem was hitting the island. As a matter of fact, I was in touch today with them regarding a lot of the problems. I am also pleased with the inclusion of the disaster assistance for the Puerto Rican Nutrition Assistance Program in the second supplemental bill for the disaster relief that was approved here. However, we still need, of course, a lot of help. We still know that there is a long way to recover ahead of us. Most of the challenges we are facing now are because of the lack of power, the lack of electricity. Our people are struggling due to not having access to their nutritional assistance benefits because there are still many stores that remain without power and they cannot process the benefits through the electronic benefits system. If the benefits are not used, in the case of Puerto Rico, for a 60-day period, they are going to be removed from individual accounts, and then returned to the Nutrition Assistance Program. So that is one of the issues we are still working with the Department: American citizens losing access to funds allocated for them to mitigate food necessities. I would like to encourage the Department of Agriculture to take these difficulties into consideration and explore more avenues for remedial action, because I know nobody expected an island or a territory to be, after 49 days, without power.
My people are helpless against the lack of electricity, yet they stand to suffer greatly because of it. Additionally, the Government of Puerto Rico had to request two hot foods waivers to allow the purchase of hot foods using Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The first one was graciously approved by the Secretary, and I hope the second one that has already been received will be also accommodated. Saying that, I want to thank personally Secretary Perdue and all the people working with FNS, USDA, and the Department of Agriculture, who have been visiting the island, dealing with farmers, dealing with the local officials. Of course, I just request that the agency remains sensitive to the challenges that 3.4 million American citizens are facing on the island. For that, I am thankful, I am grateful. Madam Speaker, I thank Congressman THOMPSON for allowing me to be here. I know this is not the first time that he is actually fighting for this. He has been a lone leader in that regard, and I want to join him in that effort.
It is difficult. I just rode out the hurricane down there. We never expect to experience something like this. So this kind of program, the disaster program, is very important not just for territories, but for States. You will never know when something like this will happen to you. The gentleman is thanking me, but you know what? I am receiving all these opportunities and help because I count on people like him to actually help me out, reaching the agencies, doing the amendments, and the votes that are needed to approve that kind of relief bill that was here. I couldn’t vote for that. Even though I represent 3.4 million American citizens, I could not vote, but the gentleman did. So this is a team effort, and there is a long way to recover. I hope it is going to end here. Again, I thank the gentleman for all he has been doing in the committee—in both committees, actually. I know we can, as a team, work out so the people of Puerto Rico may recover soon.
Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA):
Madam Speaker, I have to say it has been very impressive. In the middle of that hurricane, I know that I communicated with the gentlewoman by text, and she was what we call where I am from ‘‘hunkered down.’’ But she has been there for the people she represents every moment since. I mean, the gentlewoman was in the middle of that, and has been there, and has been reaching out and building relationships with individuals like Secretary Perdue and the staff from the Food and Nutrition Service, with USDA. I know we were just in a hearing—the gentlewoman and I serve together on the Natural Resources Committee—and talked a lot about the power disruption and how that certainly impacts nutrition, but it impacts quality of life and everything. We take it for granted. We take it for granted. So the gentlewoman’s leadership to her constituents is just very impressive. T
hey are fortunate to have her, and I am fortunate to be able to call her my friend. I think we do have a friend in terms of Secretary Sonny Perdue—a mutual friend. He and the staff at the Department of Agriculture are really committed to serving our citizens, serving our families. They have been so proactive in these overwhelming natural disasters that have gone from coast to coast, and in the Caribbean, and just everywhere we turned around, and they were absolutely devastating. So as someone who does serve on the Agriculture Committee, I take a lot of pride in the fact of seeing what we work on each and every day in terms of authorizing programs, to watch those get implemented and watch those really make a difference. The gentlewoman had mentioned the hot food waiver, the first one being approved through October, November. With the power being out, I certainly would support the gentlewoman’s request made to the Department of Agriculture to continue that. That is not something we normally do. As I explained, we all know that normally, under SNAP, in particular, it is food that we purchase, and then take it home and prepare it. But if you are without electricity, that is pretty tough to do.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL):
Mr. Speaker, Monday I returned from my third trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island almost 2 months ago. I wish I could report that a lot of progress is being made, but I can’t. It is still a disaster, and it is a stain on the reputation of the United States of America. Most places don’t have power. Generators, the sound you hear humming in every corner of the island like metallic coquis, are running ragged from overuse. In many places, the water is not on because the power is not on to pump it and drinkable water mixes with sewer water all over the island. As you can see from this picture, people are tapping mountain springs and, in this case, are using it mostly for laundry, thank goodness, because the mountain water in many cases is contaminated from humans and animals.
This man is a police officer, first responder, but he is learning to make do just like every other Puerto Rican family. Everywhere you go, you see Puerto Ricans making do. So think about your life without power, cell service, water, lights, fans, in some cases food. Imagine the dialysis patient or the elderly man in an electric wheelchair who uses oxygen tanks to breathe. I met those people in Puerto Rico. How do you get to physical therapy or regular prenatal visits when there are still roads and bridges that have simply vanished? On the one hand, when I am in Puerto Rico, I am confronted by the very best of mankind, the people who are helping strangers, feeding their neighbors, and pitching in wherever they can.
On the other hand, when I am in Puerto Rico, I am confronted with the human tragedy of people who, like all of us, depend on the government for basic assistance and help after a major disaster and have received nothing. Yes, the damage is massive, but there is no task Americans cannot accomplish if we put our minds and backs into it. Mr. Speaker, this is the Head Start building in Loiza. As you can see, the roof is torn up and there is metal sheeting that was blown around. The people in Loiza are forming a brigade to rebuild the structure so they can reopen the Head Start building. One of the things I was doing in Loiza was bringing money to get them started, raised by the Puerto Rican Agenda in Chicago from the people of Chicago. Individuals in Chicago are investing in the well-being of people in Loiza. They have never met them, but they are investing in them. They are not calling in expensive contractors or companies from Montana, and they are not waiting for the folks from FEMA or the U.S. military. They are not waiting for Donald Trump to grant Puerto Ricans a little more time now that he has made it clear that he will not personally give them his grade A help forever. Nope. The people of Chicago are getting help to the people of Puerto Rico before any official resources are coming to their rescue. It boggles the mind that it has come to this.
Here is another more difficult case. A bridge and a road were washed away by the storm. This is near Jayuya, Puerto Rico, but it could be almost anywhere on the island. More than 6 weeks after the storm and nothing, not even orange cones or a guardrail to keep people from driving off into danger. If you live up the side of this hill, you are not going anywhere any time soon until something changes, because the Army Corps of Engineers has decided just to not show up and are missing in action. Mr. Speaker, I should not have to give this speech almost 2 months after the storm. We should have accomplished much more. The people of Puerto Rico pretty much understand that President Trump doesn’t want to help them and really doesn’t care. The passports and documents that they have that say citizens of the United States should have been printed with small print that says: Yes, Puerto Ricans are citizens of the U.S. for the purposes of being drafted and going to war, but not when it comes to being helped.
Puerto Ricans are coming to grips with how little they can expect from the President and his administration. They are finding ways to make do, just as the people of Chicago are making do by sending their own help in their own way. It shouldn’t have had to come to this, but it has. Puerto Ricans are learning to make do, just like these two young women who are getting married on the beach in Vega Alta, Cerro Gordo. I met them. They let me take this picture. Life goes on, even when the government has turned its back on them.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today, marking the 48th day since Hurricane Maria made direct landfall on the island of Puerto Rico. Wreaking havoc for over 3.4 million American citizens living on the island, this administration’s response has been beyond atrocious. I witnessed it myself a couple of weeks ago, and so did a group of 50 registered nurses from across the country who volunteered for a two-week disaster relief fund and mission. What these courageous women described upon returning was not at all reassuring. The lack of efficient action has led to deadly conditions and consequences: lack of food, water, medicine, proper healthcare services, houses with roofs blown off or infested with black mold, and leptospirosis outbreaks across the island. Laura Maceri, a registered nurse, said: ‘‘It’s hell there. The people have nothing, yet they are the first to offer you the shirt off their back.’’
Another nurse, Hau Yau, expressed: ‘‘We couldn’t believe this is part of the United States. We did home visits in low-income communities with the public health liaisons there who identified those in need, and helped them do basic blood pressure checks, blood sugar checks, to refill their medicine, et cetera. They have already had chronic diseases going on, and now their environment is full of hazardous materials, and the sanitation is very, very poor.’’ From another nurse, Erin Carrera: ‘‘Spent the day in Rio Grande, a hard-hit area right outside of San Juan. No power or water here since Maria. We set up a clinic at the FEMA site for the first time here. People lined up blocks since 10 p.m. last night. But FEMA was only handing out papers—papers, which need to be filled out in order that they may receive some reimbursement eventually. Each person received a small bottle of water, a mini bag of Cheez-It and a little pack of vanilla cookies. Outrageous.
We were able to provide care to some, not nearly enough, but one small contribution to this tragedy today.’’ Another nurse said: ‘‘Today we went to a town called Barranquitas. They had almost no water or food there. They were desperate. They are relying on rainwater. One million chickens died during the storm and are now decomposed and causing people to get sick. Overwhelming is the only thing I can say to describe it.’’ Mr. Speaker, I stand with these nurses in their demands to address the humanitarian crisis on the island of Puerto Rico. This administration must respond immediately. We need to waive FEMA’s cost-sharing requirements in Puerto Rico. Yesterday, Representative Gutierrez and I introduced the WEPA legislation—the Waiver of Emergency Payments Act— that chooses and aims to do exactly that.