FEMA to Abandon Puerto Rico: Bernie Sanders Proposes Billion-dollar Program to Solarize the Island
February 2, 2018
Ashley Curtin / NationofChange & Senator Elizabeth Warren & Julia Conley / Common Dreams & EcoWatch
As parts of Puerto Rico continue to struggle to recover four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has announced it will shut off food and water aid to the island as of Jan. 31. A third of Puerto Rico residents are still without electricity and lack access to clean water. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a $146 billion recovery package that could lead the way for Puerto Rico to become a leader in solar power and other sustainable energy.
FEMA to Shut Off Aid to Puerto Rico with Municipalities Still Without Electricity and Water
A third of Puerto Rico residents are still
without electricity and lack access to potable water
four months after the Category 4 hurricane hit
Ashley Curtin / NationofChange
(February 1, 2018) -- As parts of Puerto Rico continue to struggle to recover four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officially announced it will shut off food and water aid to the island as of Jan. 31.
A third of Puerto Rico residents are still without electricity and lack access to potable water four months after the Category 4 hurricane hit, according to EcoWatch.
"There are some municipalities that may not need the help anymore, because they've got nearly 100 percent of their energy and water back," Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis said in an interview with NPR. "Ours is not so lucky."
But FEMA says that the financial assistance it's provided to municipalities and residents enabled them to "go back to the normal economy," therefore the agency needs to "create a balance" so it doesn't affect the island's economy.
"The reality is that we just need to look around," Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA's director in Puerto Rico, said in an interview with NPR. "Supermarkets are open, and things are going back to normal. If we're giving free water and food, that means that families are not going to supermarkets to buy."
Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz from San Juan rebutted the decision of FEMA tweeting, "This is the kind of indifference that must be stopped. Enough."
Cruz, who is an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, is very "taken back" by the decision and is disappointed with the relief efforts of FEMA in Puerto Rico.
On Tuesday, FEMA "clarified" its official statement saying it will "still provide supplies to volunteer organizations and nonprofits in rural areas," according to EcoWatch.
Eileen Lainez, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, posted on Tuesday to Twitter:
But after much backlash from both Democrats and Republicans as well as the government of Puerto Rico, FEMA released a new statement on Wednesday claiming the agency would "continue to support the Government of Puerto Rico to meet the needs they identify," according to NPR. The agency also said in the statement that it will not order new food and water supplies, instead it will continue to disburse from the inventory that already exists, which it is confident will be enough for the island's remaining needs.
"Provision of those commodities will continue," William Booher, a spokesman for FEMA said. Booher went on to say that the previously stated date -- Jan. 31 -- "was mistakenly provided."
According to NPR, FEMA provided more than 30 million gallons of potable water and upwards of 60 million meals to residents after the natural disaster. The agency also gave $500 million in public assistance to date and provided $3.2 million in unemployment aid to residents who lost their jobs because of the storm.
Including FEMA, many other volunteer organizations are still on the ground helping the island and its residents rebuild after the devastation.
"AmeriCorps members are still on the ground in Puerto Rico helping families affected by #HurricaneMaria," AmeriCorps tweeted on Monday.
My Trip to Puerto Rico
Senator Elizabeth Warren
BOSTON (January 14, 2018) -- Puerto Rico is a beautiful island that is still struggling with the destruction left by terrible storms and a weak response from our federal government.
I saw it myself on a Massachusetts delegation trip to Puerto Rico on Friday.
Nearly four months after Hurricane Maria hit, we were concerned that attention to the island had dropped off, and we wanted to see first-hand what was going on now. It was a day of extremes -- resilience and hope were side-by-side with indifference and incompetence.
Hospital del Niño, the children's hospital in San Juan, is home to almost three dozen children with severe disabilities from families of limited means. It also provides rehabilitation, therapy, and similar services to thousands of other children.
The building is solid -- almost a century old -- and the children's living spaces and therapy areas are scrubbed clean and decorated in cheerful colors. During the storm, the dedicated staff moved the frightened children into interior hallways and held on. When an enormous tree branch smashed down, they heard the crash and felt the whole building shake.
Afterwards, they were without power for days. Then came what hospital leaders called a "blessing": workers from Tesla arrived to set up solar panels and batteries that provided power for about 18 hours a day. With that help, the hospital never needed to stop operating.
Now it's been nearly four months. Puerto Rico is no longer in the news each day, but the fallout from the storm is everywhere. The older children go to school, but only half-days because the school has no drinkable water.
The hospital's leaders say the solar power system is unplugged because now that the hospital is back on the grid, they need the power company's help to switch back and forth from the grid to solar, and, so far no one at the power company has answered the hospital's requests to set that up.
The director worries about the future. Professionals are leaving Puerto Rico, and just as a child becomes attached to a therapist and begins to make a little progress, that person moves on.
The budget had always been a worry, with the hospital counting on people locally to contribute a significant fraction of their operating costs -- and now that there are fewer people in Puerto Rico to give money and so many more organizations needing help, they don't know how they will manage.
The solar panels could save the hospital thousands of dollars a month in utility bills, but Tesla only lent the equipment, and it was estimated that the hospital will have to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it. That would be a big chunk of the hospital's annual budget -- an impossible stretch.
And so it went around the island.
Outside San Juan, we visited Concilio de Salud Integral de Loíza, a community health center. The director said they were the only emergency room and health care provider for a region of nearly 100,000 people. Power lines are still down.
The center is on its fourth generator (the first three burned out). And they count themselves lucky. The families they serve have no power, the water isn't drinkable, and, for many, their homes still have no roofs and, in some cases, no doors or windows. We visited a shelter called Canóvanas where 21 families, from grandmas to small children, have lived for months.
But the people keep working. The hospital staffers rock the babies and laugh with the toddlers. The health center nurses check blood pressures and hand out medications. Police work round the clock, and repair crews are everywhere.
Friday morning we talked with volunteers from the Massachusetts State Police who are assisting local police with everything from directing traffic to solving murders. FEMA has a huge operation on the ground, and its volunteers and personnel have approached every job with enthusiasm and determination to help.
But even federal help has huge problems. Because they are constrained by law, the Army Corps of Engineers is spending money to rebuild a senseless, antiquated power grid that requires Puerto Rico to import fuel instead of updating their system with renewable energy sources.
Congress ignores Puerto Rico's huge debts -- debts that discourage any long-term investments in the island. Large parts of the island remain inaccessible, and no one knows when they will have reliable power and clean water.
There are dedicated and determined people in Puerto Rico, and some terrific workers from the mainland. But my bottom line: It's just not enough. The need is enormous, and the response from our federal government has been too little too late.
The people of Puerto Rico are part of our American family. They are US citizens. They are fellow human beings. And they deserve more than someone tossing them a few rolls of paper towels and then forgetting about them.
This week, Congress will be debating the budget. Budgets are about more than dollars and cents -- they are about our values. I'll keep fighting to make sure no one forgets Puerto Rico.
Thanks for being part of this fight.
Copyright 2018 Elizabeth for MA, All Rights Reserved. PO Box 290568, Boston, MA 02129
Sanders Introduces $146 Billion 'Transformation Blueprint' for Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands
Julia Conley / Common Dreams & EcoWatch
(November 28, 2017) -- Calling on the federal government to bring its "full resources to bear" on the crisis in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.-I) unveiled a $146 billion recovery package for the US territories on Tuesday, two months after Hurricane Maria left destruction across the islands.
Sanders and the Democratic co-sponsors of the new bill argue it is necessary to treat the recovery as the emergency it is, but that rebuilding the islands' battered infrastructure should not mean simply returning to things as they were.
"It is absolutely without any sense at all to rebuild Puerto Rico's antiquated, centralized and inefficient electric grid that was dependent on expensive and dirty imported fossil fuels," Sanders said in a press conference where he introduced the bill, adding that with the nickname "La Isla Del Sol," the island could be leading the way in the use of solar power and other sustainable energy.
"Before the storm Puerto Rico only had two percent of its electricity coming from sustainable energy," remarked Sanders. "Beyond rebuilding damaged facilities, our bill makes a major proactive investment in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands' infrastructure."
The bill -- formally called The Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act -- was referred to as "a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico" by Ramon Luis Nieves, former lawmaker on the island. It would give $62 billion to the territory to help it pay off its debts, $51 billion for economic development, and $27 billion for infrastructure.
Sanders noted in his press conference with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and other coo-sponsors, that more than two months after Maria made landfall, "half of the people there -- American citizens all -- still have no electricity, many are still struggling to get clean drinking water and more than 100,000 people have left Puerto Rico."
But despite the dire situation, Trump has requested just $29 billion for Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas combined, to help with the recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as well as Maria.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been sharply critical of the president's approach to Puerto Rico's recovery, expressed her approval of the bill in a statement:
The bill that Senator Sanders has introduced in the United States Congress is a comprehensive plan that provides the blueprint for the transformation of Puerto Rico. While dealing with all major areas of immediate concern: energy, health and education it also sets the foundation to make Puerto Rico a more equitable, just and fair society for all.
In addition to humanitarian relief and improved infrastructure, Warren stressed the need for full, true debt relief. As President Donald Trump brought up in the days after the storm, Puerto Rico's debt exceeds $70 billion, brought on partially by a lack of tax revenue after Congress repealed a tax break for businesses on the island in 1976. This caused companies to flee and take the economic growth Puerto Rico experienced following World War II with them.
The island fell further into debt as "vulture" hedge funds saw an opportunity to buy up the island's debt, only to sue its government when it defaulted on paying the funds back -- forcing Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy four months before Maria hit. Similar firms swooped in following Hurricane Maria.
"Puerto Rico needs full debt relief," Warren said. "This is critical. The vulture funds that snapped up Puerto Rican debt should not get one cent from the island. Not one cent."
Warren also criticized Trump's callous and insufficient response to the island's crisis, and urged him and Congress to support the bill.
"From the start, President Trump's response to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands has been too little, too late. I've been telling President Trump, 'Do your job.' Well, this bill is an opportunity for President Trump to step up and do his job."
The senators' press conference was broadcast on Facebook Live:
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