Schumer and Leahy Urge “Full Force of Federal Government” in Disaster Relief

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, outlining the efforts required to get Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent natural disasters up and running again.

The letter lists the natural disasters which have affected our nation this year, calling for “the full force of the federal government” to help people struck by the disasters, and at the same time to “invest in technology, conservation, and infrastructure that will mitigate further damage and make our communities more resilient.”

The letter pointed out that the time gap between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria could cause people to feel that disaster funds had been used up by the early needs in Texas and Florida, but insisted that this attitude should not lessen the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In fact, the letter spoke of the “special considerations for Puerto Rico” required in the third request for disaster funds. The debt crisis, the austerity requirements of the PROMESA fiscal oversight board, and the poor condition of the electric grid, the authors say, put Puerto Rico in a particularly bad position to cope with the hurricane damage.

Noting that Mulvaney will be making a third request for disaster assistance, the authors lay out their priorities for this third request which include:

  • Funds either in the form of grants or of no-interest loans should be provided to give the territorial government operating expenses. These funds should be explicitly excluded from any consideration for debt service, and if they are in the form of loans, they should be forgiven if Puerto Rico is not solvent within three years.
  • The electrical power system should be rebuild with an eye to long-term goals. The new grids should not rely on fuel imported from the mainland U.S., so that the high cost of electricity in Puerto Rico will not continue to hamper business or create hardship for residents. The new system should also be better able to survive hurricanes. This section of the letter calls for specific technical assistance from federal agencies, and for strong control over the power utility’s use of the funds.
  • A focus on clean water, with assistance from the EPA. The lack of safe drinking water continues to be problematic in Puerto Rico, and the letter acknowledges that the local government agencies do not have the funds to solve the problem without further support.
  • A number of different federal agencies which can help with sewage issues in the Islands are also named in the letter. The spread of toxic waste resulting from flooding and the hurricanes is a public health emergency, the letter asserts, and one which must be dealt with quickly.
  • Fewer than 10% of Puerto Rico’s roads are currently open, the authors point out, so federal funds for roads and highways will be a high priority. The letter calls for an end to caps or matching funds for road repair. Realistically, the federal government will have to rebuild the roads in order to allow Puerto Rico to rebuild to a level of prosperity that will allow the territory to gain a measure of self-sufficiency.
  • Support for rural and agricultural communities is essential, given the massive loss of crops in Puerto Rico. This section also calls for wetland restoration to help limit the damage of future hurricanes. A number of specific USDA projects are called out by the authors.
  • Puerto Rico does not receive SNAP (food stamps) assistance as States do. There is a cap on the corresponding program, and funding is lower. The letter asks that these funds, which provide healthy food for needy children be made available to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is also not eligible for disaster-related assistance with food, and the authors ask that this restriction also be ended.
  • More inequities between States and territories show up in healthcare funding, and the letter calls for equal and increased healthcare funding for Puerto Rico.
  • Funds are needed for education in Puerto Rico, including rebuilding and restoring head Statrt programs for early childhood education, schools, and colleges and universities. The letter also calls for support for the large number of children who are currently homeless, both for schooling and for mental health concerns.
  • The letter also asks that repair and rebuilding of public, historic, and federal lands and facilities, including the Arecibo telescope and El Yunque National Forest.

Considering all the disasters, not just the situation in Puerto Rico, the senators point out that a failure to rebuild homes, schools, roads, and buildings can lead to continued poverty in the future, so a complete plan for rebuilding can be expected to reduce taxpayer costs over the long run.

The letter calls for additional funding for the Economic Development Association, the National Institute for Standards and Technologies’ Manufacturing Extension Partnership, HUD and Public Housing Agencies, and the Small Business Administration.

Senators signing the letter with Leader Schumer and Vice Chairman Leahy include Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif), Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.)

Read the full letter.

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