On Monday Oct. 16, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), having just returned from Puerto Rico, offered compelling remarks about his visit for his Senate colleagues:
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL):
Madam President, I want to talk about a matter of life and death. It is happening, as we speak, in Puerto Rico. I went there yesterday. I didn’t want to have a flyover of the island, but at the invitation of Governor Rossello, I got into a helicopter so that I could get up into the mountains and into the areas that have been closed because people hadn’t been able to get there on the roads. That is what I wanted to see. We have had colleagues come back and, because of a flyover in a helicopter, say that they say don’t see a lot of damage. Of course not, because they are flying over parts of towns in which most of the structures are concrete blocks. But if you get down there on the ground and go into the structure, then you will see a different story.
First of all, you will smell a different story because the water has accumulated, and now it is turning to mold and mildew—inhabitable conditions. But when you get up into the mountains, you see the places that were cut off. Not until a week ago did they have the roads cleared so that people could get up there. And as we speak, as of yesterday, they are still reconstructing the roads so that people can get on these narrow, winding, little dirt roads that go up through the mountains. So for 2 and a half weeks, communities have been completely cut off, like the one that I saw yesterday, Utuado, which is way up in the mountains. I want to show you some pictures, but I want you to realize that today is Monday. Next Wednesday will be 4 weeks since the hurricane hit. Can you imagine going into a State with 3.5 million people and 85 percent of the people do not have electricity? And by the way, these are our fellow American citizens; they are just in a territory. Can you imagine going into a State where a month after the hurricane, 50 percent of the people do not have potable water? It is an absolute outrage. And I don’t think the American people realize what is happening.
Let me be your eyes by what I saw yesterday. This is a river bottom in the little town of Utuado. This side of the river is cut off from this side of the river because the one bridge washed out. If you look at this structure, the question is, How long is this going to last? It is tilting to the left. Any major rush of water is going to take out this section. I want you to see how creative these people are. It is hard to see at this distance, but they erected a cable system going over to the other side. They took the basket of a grocery cart, took the wheels and handles off, and this is on a pulley, and these guys are pulling it over here and then they pull it back. This is how people on this side of the river are getting food and water and medicine if they can’t walk across. This is how people are surviving. If this section of the bridge goes—and it is just a matter of time—they are going to try to hook up a cable over here at the top of this riverbank over to the top of this riverbank and do the same kind of pulley.
Here in the States, on the mainland, if something like this happened, the Corps of Engineers would be there. We would be rebuilding. The Department of Transportation would be rebuilding that bridge. These are our fellow American citizens, and they are going without. Let me show you another picture. This is the bank of another river. Let me show you the result. This is what happened. You see this whole house right behind here. I will show you the church in a minute. I asked the pastor: Did the people survive? He said that one was trapped in the house. They were able to get that person out. The others had already fled. But you can see that with the force of the extra rain and the water coming down, houses like that are history. Here is that same section of the river with the church in the background. The church survived. I talked to the pastor of the church. Here I am having a conversation with the people who live on this side. I asked the pastor whether he lost any parishioners. He did not. On the side of his church, he has a dish, and because he has a generator, he is the only person in this town who has any kind of communication—in this case, through the satellite dish for television. Everything else is being run on generators because there is no electricity. As you know, these generators are not powerful enough to run air-conditioners; therefore, the water accumulates. Mold and mildew start to accumulate, with all the health effects as a result of that.
Does this look like something we would have in this country, or does this look like a third world country? Do the images in these photographs bring to mind other Caribbean nations that we have seen that have been devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes? Think about what happened to Haiti. When people go to San Juan—by the way, 85 percent of San Juan is without power. You see these little pockets, and of course they are trying to get the generators going in the hospitals for obvious reasons. They need the generators to go to stations where people are getting their dialysis treatments. That is obvious. But what about the wear and tear on the generators and the replacements?
The Governor of Puerto Rico, Governor Rossello, has a very ambitious schedule: He wants to restore 95 percent of power by the middle of December. I hope the Governor is right. It has been turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers to get the electrical grid and structures up and running. I am afraid it is going to be a lot longer. I asked for estimates on the immediate needs, especially rebuilding the grid. He said $4 billion. Are we going to be able to get that for them? What are going to be the ultimate needs of Puerto Rico? We just heard the Senator from Texas talk about his State and the estimates that you heard out of Texas being as much as $100 billion. What about the needs of Puerto Rico? What about the needs of Florida? What about the needs of the Virgin Islands? We have a supplemental coming up, but is that going to take care of the needs of all of those four areas that have been hit hard? If Texas is $100 billion, a long-term fix for Puerto Rico may well be $80 billion to $90 billion. And who knows what it is going to be for Florida and the Virgin Islands. Therefore, are we in this Congress, with or without the leadership of the White House, going to have the stomach to help our fellow American citizens? I am sure we are going to help Texas, and I certainly hope we will help my State of Florida, but are we willing to help the American citizens in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico? It is not a rosy picture, but we hear some Members of Congress come back and say they didn’t see a lot of damage. It is people using a pulley they have Jerry-rigged across a river to survive with daily supplies of food and fuel and water. You can’t see that from the air. If you have no power, you have no water, and you have no sewer systems, then, what you have is chaos.
It has been a month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The hospitals are rationing services while they struggle to get the medicines and the fuel they need to power the generators. The dialysis centers are struggling to get the water and fuel they need to operate. Like many, I have written, in this case, to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to urge the Department to do more to help these dialysis centers obtain the supplies they need. I wanted to come to the floor of the Senate, having gotten back very late last night from Puerto Rico, and tell the Senate that more needs to be done, and it is going to have to be done for a very long period of time. We have to do more to ensure that the supplies that are reaching the island are getting to those who need them.
Remember, things got piled up in the ports in the first week, and they didn’t get out to be distributed. Senator Rubio and I were saying at the time that it is going to take the U.S. military, which is uniquely organized and capable of distribution of long logistical lines. It wasn’t until a week after the hurricane that three-star General Buchanan was put in charge. I met with him and the head of FEMA down in the Puerto Rico area. Finally, those supplies are getting out. These are supplies for survival. We need to pass a disaster relief package that fully funds Puerto Rico’s recovery. We need to provide Puerto Rico with the community development block grant money that Governor Rossello´ has requested, just like we need the CDBGs for Texas and Florida and the Virgin Islands as well. We need to make Puerto Rico eligible for permanent work assistance so they can start to rebuild their infrastructure immediately.
I want to make something fairly clear. There should be absolutely no ambiguity about what is going on in Puerto Rico. It isn’t rosy. It isn’t that you can sit in a comfortable seat in a helicopter looking down from 1,500 or 2,000 feet on structures that look like they are intact, when, in fact, the reality on the ground below is completely different. Certainly, they didn’t go up there and see all those bridges washed out in the mountains. They didn’t see people scrambling for food. They didn’t see the Puerto Rican National Guard rebuilding that little narrow dirt road winding along the banks of that river. They didn’t see or walk into the buildings where you would almost be overwhelmed with the smells— the smells, particularly, of mold and mildew. People have died as a result of this hurricane. People have died because of the lack of supplies and power. Our fellow Americans are dying, and they desperately need our help. Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, I have seen it with my own eyes on the ground, and I am here to urge this Congress and the administration that we have to act and act for a very long period of time. Our citizens in Puerto Rico need our help. We have the responsibility to help fellow citizens in need.