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Congress Moves to Investigate Hurricane Response in USVI, Puerto Rico

Senate Democrats may be laying the groundwork for future investigations into the Trump administration in response to mounting reports that the federal government failed to respond adequately to two category 5 storms that battered the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico one year ago. Nearly 3,000 people died as a result of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, making it the deadliest natural disaster in modern American history.

Earlier this month President Trump stated, “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico.”


Ripple Effects

“Hurricane Maria killed about 3,000 American citizens, had a crippling impact on health and education systems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, had an impact all around the country — and yet, there hasn’t been a single hearing,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said Tuesday, using her time at a committee hearing on a different education bill passed in 2015 to raise the issues.

The senator pointed out that the hurricanes also displaced Virgin Islanders and Puerto Ricans now living on the United States mainland — including more than 3,200 displaced Puerto Rican students who are now enrolled in Massachusetts schools. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he doesn’t support statehood for the U.S territory, harshly condemning the island’s current leadership.

 


With the Virgin Islands Department of Education struggling to open the remainder of closed schools in the territory, Warren and seven other senators wrote about “critical challenges in their health and educational systems — citing hundreds of school closures, hospital damages and shortages of medical professionals in both U.S. territories.

The letter was obtained exclusively by ABC News and was forwarded to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Labor Pensions. During her speech in the Senate committee Tuesday, Warren said, “We hope you will consider this latest request and that we will have a hearing on the devastating impact on Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Island and the rest of the country because of this deadly hurricane.” The senators’ request for a hearing could expand, turning into future investigations if Republicans lose their majority in the November midterms.

Senate Democrats began calling for answers after multiple reports surfaced about the damage hurricanes Irma and Maria had on both U.S. territories. Including a newly declassified intelligence assessment, written five days after Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that cited a ‘high’ potential for government failure.  

Maryland Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings demanded answers on whether President Trump was aware of the assessment at the time, noting that the President gave public comments during that period praising relief efforts. The President blasted Puerto Rican officials who raised similar concerns in the now public report.


Botched Response

An investigation headed by Politico reviewed newly obtained FEMA records, public documents and over 50 people directly involved with disaster response. The investigation revealed that President Trump and his administration were far more aggressive with their disaster response in Texas after Harvey than in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A Politico review of public documents, newly obtained FEMA records and interviews with more than 50 people involved with disaster response indicates that the Trump administration — and the president himself — responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico.


Read: Read: Military Report Warned of ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ in USVI, Puerto Rico


Last September, President Trump was informed by White House aids that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were, in fact, U.S. territories and were home to over 3 million Americans. “The federal government did a lot in terms of pre-positioning and being on the ground, but what happened here in terms of the time frame in which things would happen, would have never happened anywhere [else] in the United States — it would never have taken this long,” Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett said in an interview with State of the Territory News earlier this year.

Meaning President Trump did not know about the existence of U.S. territories while he was campaigning for the presidency in 2016.

The President earlier this week mentioned that Puerto Rico would not receive statehood under its current leadership. “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends. And we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defence,” the President said in a speech addressing the United Nations this week.

President Trump has shown a particular proclivity for name calling — referring to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz’ as “nasty” last October during the start of recovery efforts in the territory.


Read: In a Historic Move, First U.S. Territory Legalizes Recreational Marijuana


While the President’s comments at the UN were discussing defence, regional security and other forms of aid for foreign powers, it’s hard to imagine that this same shift in policy couldn’t be applied to defiant states — and territories — too.

“We must find out what went wrong in the preparation for and recovery from this disaster, and make sure that federal and state agencies are better prepared for the next natural disaster,” the letter ended.

Featured image by The Virgin Islands Consortium