WASHINGTON — House Democrats hosted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz at a press conference on Capitol Hill today after a hearing at which she was supposed to testify about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was abruptly canceled.
The House Homeland Security Committee hearing, which was also supposed to be FEMA Administrator Brock Long’s first appearance before House lawmakers, was postponed with the date and time to be announced.
Cruz has famously tangled with President Trump over the administration’s response in Puerto Rico, where the official hurricane death toll is currently at 54 but there have also been more than 900 cremations since the storm.
The mayor said she heard about the hearing cancellation just as she arrived in D.C., and charged that it “was evident that this administration does not want to listen to the truth and does not want to own up to it.”
“The federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s tragedy and humanitarian crises has been inadequate, has been insufficient, and plainly, it has been a way for the Trump administration not to comply with their moral obligation to help the people of Puerto Rico,” Cruz said.
She said the Jones Act that was keeping foreign-flagged ships from carrying aid from the mainland needs to be permanently “voided” — Trump suspended it for 10 days — because “that wasn’t enough to get the help that we needed for Puerto Rico.”
“There needs to be a comprehensive plan for Puerto Rico that touches on energy and education and healthcare. But it cannot be a plan that takes us back to the 1950s and that says that things ought to be rebuilt up to those standards,” she said. “We need to reform and reshape our society because no longer we will be able to hide inequality and poverty behind palm trees nor pina coladas.”
Cruz said the island’s recovery process is not a “good news” story but “a life and death story,” and “survival cannot be our new way of life.”
“While the American people have had a big heart, President Trump has had a big mouth, and he has used it to insult the people of Puerto Rico. So, I am here to say what I was going to say at that hearing that they seemed not to want to hear,” she said. “Mr. Trump, do your job. Lives are at stake. This is not about politics. This is not about your ego. This is about the people of Puerto Rico and the people of USVI.”
Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) argued that “if we can send people to the moon and bring them back, surely we can get water to citizens, we can get the lights turned on in a timely manner, and not go through the excuses.”
“Part of this hearing today would have gotten through some of what we’ve been hearing and gotten to the facts,” he said. “But unfortunately, the hearing was canceled.”
Cruz said the island is “on the verge also of a health crisis, because scabies, gastritis, conjunctivitis — you say, well, gastritis is an everyday type of ailment — but if you’re dehydrated and you don’t have the appropriate medication, you’re going to die, especially if you are in a population that is at a disadvantage: the elderly, the children, the AIDS population.”
“The priority, of course, is to get power back. Why? Because we’re not talking about having power for having air conditioning or having hot water. We’re talking about power to be able to operate in the operating rooms in Puerto Rican hospitals,” she said. “We’re talking about power to be able to have our children go to school. So there are basic needs that need to be met when you have power. But micro-grids, especially if they are solar powered, are an option which is readily available.”
On the death toll, the mayor noted that “we know of hospitals that don’t want to report the deaths as deaths related to not having energy because they think that’s going to be bad for them.”
In Tuesday testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Long told lawmakers that “moving forward, we continue to work every day to restore the power; particularly in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands, restoring the power solves a multitude of problems.”
“The Virgin Islands were hit, equally as hard as Puerto Rico. And the bottom line is, is that they’re basically in the same approach. But there’s two different approaches being taken to restore the power, as I understand it,” the FEMA administrator explained. “So, where we proactively pushed forward the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico, the power authority that represents the Virgin Islands is in control and conducting their own contracts and leading their power restoration. But if — the last number I saw was, that power should be restored by, you know, December time frame as well. But here, again, that’s just an estimate.”