Behind the Scenes — Hurricane Recovery in Puerto Rico

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, I traveled to Puerto Rico with my Connecticut colleague Senator Dick Blumenthal. We were there to survey the status of the hurricane recovery efforts, and what we saw made me more furious than ever. I wrote this detailed account of my visit to pass along to you. I hope you find it interesting, and also a call to action.

A One-Way Airport

Early Tuesday morning, we fly to San Juan. This is Senator Blumenthal’s second trip to Puerto Rico since the hurricane. It’s my first. There is just no substitute for seeing a disaster area firsthand and getting the chance to speak in person to victims and responders. The national television cameras have long since left the island, so it’s more important now than ever before for members of Congress who care about Puerto Rico to use visits like this to keep attention focused on the ongoing recovery effort.

As we arrive at San Juan Airport, a representative from the governor’s office meets us at the gate along with a representative from the Commonwealth’s Secretary of State’s office. They note that a new record is in the process of being set that day for outgoing flights from San Juan. As the recovery effort stalls and the White House delays sending clean up funds, an estimated 400,000 people have left the island for the mainland. With more than half of Puerto Rico’s hotels still closed, tourism is almost non-existent. The airport basically functions as a one-way conduit for people fleeing the devastated island.

Hospitals Under Siege

Our first stop is the University of Puerto Rico Hospital. The power is back on here, but they went two weeks with no electricity and still half of their patients, who are mostly elderly and poor, go home to a house without electricity. This is a public health hazard for patients who need to refrigerate medicine or keep ventilation or oxygen equipment running. We visit the emergency room and they are busting at the seams. Why? Because though the hospitals are now open, the primary care offices are still closed and people are using the emergency room for both basic and emergency care.

Dr. Carlos Fernandez Sifre, Associate Program Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at the hospital, tells us that eighteen of their staff have resigned and left for the mainland since the hurricane, which compounds their existing difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. Half the doctors educated at the University leave the island, in part because salaries are so low in Puerto Rico since Washington normally reimburses the Commonwealth at a much lower Medicaid rate than the fifty states. We need to fix this, because if more and more doctors and nurses leave the island, there will simply be no health care system left to care for the people.

Understaffed and Underfunded

Next, we head into San Juan to meet with FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers leadership. These are good people — they have loads of experience in responding to disasters like this. But it’s clear they are operating without any kind of mandate to get the job done as quickly as possible. Half the homes still lack electricity, more than 100 days after the hurricane. More than half the houses with roof damage haven’t even been given emergency tarps to keep the wind and rain out. Only a small percentage of the debris has been cleared from roads and neighborhoods.

Not once during our meeting does anyone from FEMA or the Corps mention the White House or the Trump administration. They are on their own, and it’s clear they don’t have the money or resources to get the job done. They’re proud that they’ve been able to make progress and are now installing 800 temporary tarp roofs every day. But they are nowhere close to filling the need, leaving little kids with rain pouring into their houses. I ask what prevents them from doubling that pace. They have no answer. It’s clear they could, if they were given the orders and the resources to do it. But no one above them in the administration seems to care.

Senator Blumenthal asks when the power will be back on, noting that when he was here in the fall, their target date was the end of the year. The answer now is March, and even that answer seems tentative. They show us the organizational chart for power restoration, and it’s a total mess. Part of this isn’t the Army Corps’ problem — the government and the power company still control part of the restoration plan. But once again, it’s clear that the White House could have created clearer lines of accountability, and that hasn’t happened.

The Human Toll

We make a short visit to the Foundation for Puerto Rico which has been coordinating private donations sent to the island. We are particularly interested in visiting with the Foundation since they helped a group of Puerto Rican leaders in Connecticut facilitate the delivery of mattresses to individuals on the island who had their possessions destroyed. Senator Blumenthal and I are so proud of the extraordinary lengths Connecticut residents have gone to help Puerto Rico. No state has a higher percentage of its population with Puerto Rican roots than Connecticut and our state’s strong connection to the island has been on display as donations continue to flow from Connecticut into the disaster area.

We spend the evening touring Caño Martín Peña, one of the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods in San Juan. This is an area in dire crisis. Over 100 days without power, and disease and sickness are spreading throughout the packed, tenement-style houses. A tidal waterway runs through the channel, and the hurricane knocked down so many trees that the already constricted waterway is now almost totally blocked. Since there is no real modern sewage system, when the watercourse overflows it sends raw sewage into the streets. Since Maria, the neighborhood has flooded three times. It’s a public health nightmare.

As the sun goes down, the neighborhood goes completely dark. There are a few generators running but few residents have the money to afford one, nevermind the money for gas to keep it operating. One woman, whose father needs electricity to run his home oxygen tank, says she is spending half her salary on gasoline for her generator. Another woman tells us about the rising child asthma cases. With so much water in the walls of the building and no air conditioning or electricity for fans, mold is taking over, and kids are getting sick. And remember, this isn’t some distant rural village — this is the center of San Juan!

A Governor at his Wit’s End

We sit for dinner with Pedro Rosselló, the former Governor of Puerto Rico and the current Governor’s father. Shortly after the hurricane, I gave a speech on the Senate floor surveying the history of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations, making the case that Washington has been screwing Puerto Rico for the better part of 100 years. Pedro Rosselló is a supporter of Puerto Rican statehood, and having watched my speech, he is eager to provide us with a sprawling history of America’s colonial disposition toward the island. Watching Puerto Rico be treated so shabbily in the aftermath of Maria, it’s hard to argue that they benefit from their current status, and I listen intently to the former governor’s history lesson.

Wednesday morning, we head to La Fortaleza, a 480-year-old Spanish military fort that now acts as the residence for the Governor. It’s an impressive place, and the Governor, thirty-eight-year-old Ricardo Rosselló, hosts us for a working breakfast. As one of the youngest Governors in the country, I’ve gotten to know Rosselló a little bit. We both have young kids (his second child was born shortly after Hurricane Maria hit!) and have talked about the challenges of figuring out the work-family balance as young parents with big jobs.

Rosselló is in a tough spot — he can’t engage in open warfare with the Trump administration since he is dependent on their cooperation in the recovery efforts. But he is clearly exhausted by the foot-dragging and unnecessary bureaucracy of the recovery efforts. He wants our help on three fronts: 1) a robust disaster recovery bill by the end of January that gets as much money directly to the island as possible; 2) a repeal of certain provisions in the Republican tax reform bill that penalized companies that have operations in Puerto Rico (an unbelievably cruel provision seeing that it was passed in the middle of the disaster response); and 3) a fix to Puerto Rico’s low Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Dick and I promise to help on all fronts, and we join Rosselló for a short press conference on the steps on the residence to announce our plans to go back to Washington and fight for everything the island needs.

We hustle into a waiting car in order to make our flight out of San Juan. The airport, once again, is jam-packed with people leaving the island, either temporarily or permanently. We are glad that Connecticut is home to so many people seeking refuge from the hurricane and its aftermath, but let’s be clear — these people would rather be staying in Puerto Rico, their home. It’s unacceptable that a refugee crisis is occurring inside our own nation, simply because Washington and the White House chooses to let the recovery efforts languish.

If half of the homes in Connecticut were without power 50 days after a storm — nevermind 100 days — there would rightfully be riots in the street. I leave Puerto Rico more motivated than ever to right the wrongs that persist there. Like the families we met in Canyon Martin Pena, I am furious. Washington must do better, and things must change. Fast.