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Greatest Rebuilding Challenge has been Communication Across Puerto Rico, Mayor Tells Congress

An airman helps repair cell towers in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, Nov. 3, 2017. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts)

WASHINGTON – San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority skipped a hurricane relief effort hearing before Congress on Tuesday, with the utility claiming that the executive’s absence would disrupt disaster relief efforts.

PREPA told Congress in a letter on Monday that forcing Executive Director Ricardo Ramos to take a three-day trip away from the island to visit Washington would be detrimental to coordination efforts for some 3,000 utility workers and equipment.

Cruz retweeted a message of skepticism about Ramos’ absence. The tweet linked to an article by El Nuevo Dia, which noted that had Ramos appeared before Congress, he would have been subjected to questions related to the Whitefish controversy, in which a $300 million contract for rebuilding the island’s power grid went to a tiny company from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Montana hometown.

During the hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, lawmakers discussed federal response in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and the island’s mounting debt, which had been considered a crisis before the hurricane.

In May, Puerto Rico filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, revealing about $73 billion in debt. The government is currently attempting to manage the debt under Title III of state law known as PROMESA, which involves a court-directed restructuring process.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico native, asked how the government plans to continue funding operations as a multitude of businesses and individuals flee the island, further shrinking Puerto Rico’s tax base.

Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico Executive Director Natalie Jaresko told Velázquez that Puerto Rico is scheduled to deliver a 30-year debt sustainability analysis before the end of December.

“The way things stand today, it might take over 50 years for the bond holders to expect to be paid because there’s not going to be a tax base left in Puerto Rico,” Velázquez said.

“As you know, prior to the hurricane, it appeared impossible, and that’s why we were in Title III to repay the creditors. Today the situation is gravely worse,” Jaresko responded.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine veteran, had harsh words for the Trump administration’s response to the hurricane relief effort, claiming that had this been the same response in Texas following Hurricane Harvey, military generals would lose their stars and FEMA managers would be out of work.

Gallego compared the response in Puerto Rico to the U.S. response to an earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Gallego claimed that after Hurricane Maria, it was five days before a federal official stepped foot on the island, while the U.S. provided overnight military deployment to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 disaster. In Haiti, he said, there were 8,000 troops deployed in two days, while it took 10 days for the response to reach that level in Puerto Rico. Haiti had about 22,000 troops within two weeks, he continued, while Puerto Rico had about 9,000 in that same span. He also noted that hurricanes allow for much greater planning than earthquakes.

“For most mayors, we would have liked to see (response) faster. That’s what we said from the beginning – the help is coming through. We like to see it faster,” Guaynabo Mayor Angel Pérez Otero told Gallego, though he noted that this is the first time Puerto Rico has coordinated with FEMA and the federal government in this type of disaster.

Otero said the greatest difficulty has been communication across the island, explaining that everyone has been learning from the experience.

“I am accusing the federal government, FEMA and our DoD for not responding quickly enough to the needs of the local municipalities,” Gallego said. “If there is any illusion that what occurred in Puerto Rico is somehow normal or it was sufficient, they are wrong. People have died because of this inaction from this administration, and the fact that anyone thinks it’s acceptable is just disgusting.”