Puerto Rico: The ur­gency of now

Cecil Whig - - OPINION -

A Rhode Is­land con­gress­man took to the U.S. House floor Wed­nes­day to im­plore Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Congress to speed up aid to Puerto Rico fol­low­ing last week’s dis­as­trous hur­ri­cane.

“Why is this tak­ing so long?” asked Rep. David Ci­cilline, a Demo­crat rep­re­sent­ing the state’s 1st Con­gres­sional Dis­trict. “Bring a bill to the floor. Let’s ad­dress this hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.”

We share Ci­cilline’s fran­tic con­cern for Puerto Ri­cans dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Maria. The Cat­e­gory 4 storm whipped sus­tained winds of 155 mph across the is­land be­gin­ning Sept. 20, top­pling cell tow­ers and shred­ding power lines. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the days af­ter the storm has been chal­leng­ing.

The is­land, lo­cated 1,150 miles off the south­east­ern coast of Florida, re­mains largely un­der black­out. It could be weeks be­fore elec­tric­ity is re­stored. Food and wa­ter are in short sup­ply. Washed out bridges and roads have wors­ened iso­la­tion. And flood dam­age to air­ports has com­pli­cated ef­forts to de­liver sup­plies. So, again, we share Ci­cilline’s ur­gency. We also of­fer some con­text. Puerto Rico’s gov­er­nor, Ri­cardo Ros­sello, praised Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­spon­sive­ness, say­ing Trump has been in con­tact with him on a daily ba­sis. Ros­sello has said he was “very grate­ful” for the help of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and blamed lo­gis­tics, not pol­i­tics, for de­lays in get­ting help im­me­di­ately af­ter the storm.

Within days of the storm’s land­fall, the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense, Na­tional Guard, U.S. Marines and the Coast Guard were on the ground or on their way to the is­land, fed­eral of­fi­cials have said. Thou­sands of U.S. Army Re­servists also were de­ployed and flights and ves­sels of sup­plies be­gan ar­riv­ing.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands will qual­ify for the same pro­grams of­fered by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to­ward hur­ri­cane re­lief ef­forts for res­i­dents of Texas and Florida.

So was the re­sponse to cit­i­zens of Puerto Rico quick enough?

It’s never quick enough. Not with a storm of that mag­ni­tude on an is­land 1,150 miles away. It’s not pos­si­ble. Res­i­dents of Texas and Florida also waited for help af­ter Hur­ri­canes Harvey and Irma. Some ru­ral Florid­i­ans spent more than a week with­out elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter, with wa­ter and gaso­line sup­plies strained and with homes flooded.

Trump on Wed­nes­day ac­knowl­edged his ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing lift­ing the Jones Act to speed up aid to the is­land. Congress passed the act af­ter World War I to pro­tect U.S. in­ter­ests, both mil­i­tar­ily and eco­nom­i­cally. The act man­dates that prod­ucts shipped be­tween Amer­i­can ports be car­ried by ves­sels built in the United States and staffed by U.S. cit­i­zens.

If tem­po­rar­ily lift­ing the act would speed up sup­plies to Puerto Rico, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should not waste any more time. Do it.

Also com­pli­cat­ing clean-up on the is­land is its pre­car­i­ous econ­omy, dam­aged by over­spend­ing and tee­ter­ing near bank­ruptcy — and some say due in part to the Jones Act, which makes it more ex­pen­sive for Puerto Rico to re­ceive U.S. prod­ucts.

Last year, Congress ap­proved the Over­sight, Man­age­ment and Eco­nomic Sta­bil­ity Act for Puerto Rico, a bill de­signed to help lift the is­land out of its vast debts with stricter fed­eral over­sight of spend­ing and rev­enue.

But now more aid is needed. Re­in­stalling a power grid, along with hous­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and ba­sic sup­plies, on a poor, iso­lated is­land that re­lied on tourism and agri­cul­ture, will re­quire di­rect and con­sis­tent at­ten­tion. Help is there. More is on the way. More can be done. This ed­i­to­rial orig­i­nally ap­peared in the Chicago Tri­bune on Sept. 28.

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