WASHINGTON – Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is calling on the Trump administration to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fly residents of Puerto Rico to the mainland United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Gutierrez told reporters FEMA advised him not to survey the damage in Puerto Rico because his visit would get in the way of the rebuilding process and “interrupt the work of rescue.” The congressman ultimately decided to pay his own way to get to the island. He described the situation there as a catastrophe and humanitarian crisis. He said the vast majority of the island lacks power and water.
“This is a humanitarian crisis. They [FEMA] don’t want you to know the truth,” said Gutierrez today during a press conference outside of the Capitol building about the White House’s handling of the relief effort in Puerto Rico.
“Every story we get is a story of human tragedy, of life and death and that struggle. They should be able to come back to the mainland of the United States. If this were Houston, we would have already driven there. If this were New Orleans, we would have already driven there. We cannot drive down to the island of Puerto Rico and rescue our loved ones,” he added.
Gutierrez argued that “all of those who wish to relocate to a safe place” should be able to do so, not just the people who can afford private jets. The congressman said the government has the “capacity” to supply planes for displaced residents to travel from Puerto Rico to the U.S.
“Not only the capacity, they have the funding to do it. And they say to me, ‘well, the governor hasn’t asked for it.’ Well, you know what? I’m a member of Congress. I represent 125,000 of Puerto Rican descent and they are saying to me, ‘We live in Chicago, Congressman. You are our congressman; we didn’t vote for the governor of Puerto Rico. We voted for you. We need you to do your job and we need you to bring our loved ones to us in the city of Chicago,’” he said.
Gutierrez explained that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is ready to accept individuals and families from Puerto Rico and enroll their children in public school, get the medical care they need and provide housing when necessary.
“Chicago wants to be for Puerto Rico what Houston was for New Orleans, remember that?” he said. “We opened up our hearts; let’s open up our hearts. We have to bring them to the mainland, and that is the word to use because they are not in a foreign country, they are in the United States. You want to bring them where? To the mainland United States.”
Gutierrez said the public health crisis on the island is going to continue to expand. He advised his colleagues to visit the mountains rather than the cities.
“I told them don’t let them [FEMA] hoodwink you and take you to San Juan and take you to pleasant places. Tell them, take you into the mountains – two-thirds of the people live in the mountains of Puerto Rico,” he said.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) agreed that FEMA should supply planes to transport Puerto Ricans to their relatives living in the mainland.
“What we’re asking is for those who do not have connections, for those who do not have money and resources, for the elderly and the frail and those who are most compromised who want to come to the mainland from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, FEMA needs to make that happen,” he said at the press conference.
“Their health and their lives are at risk. We’re not calling anyone out. We are just saying, ‘Do your job.’ Get these American citizens to the United States so they can be cared for, they can be comforted and their lives can be saved,” he added.
Gutierrez suggested that FEMA officials ask simple questions when they are handing out water and food to Puerto Ricans.
“Do you need to be relocated? Do you need to be resettled? Do you feel safe?” he said. “We should simply ask. Bring us your most imperiled and sick and those who want to come.”