Governor warns US Congress of humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned the U.S. government that Puerto Rico faces a humanitarian crisis due to the problems caused by Hurricane María on the island five days ago.
The worst storm to hit the island in the past 80 years left floods, landslides, areas without communication, the collapse of the power grid, severe damage to telecommunications, 15,000 people in shelters, at least 16 deaths and more than 5,500 people rescued.
After the hurricane, the lack of communication services and access to certain areas have kept regions without sufficient water, food and fuel supplies; and where there are supplies, desperate residents form hourslong lines for whatever they can get. Problems with telecommunications also resulted in a lack of cash because people cannot withdraw money from their bank accounts, use credit cards or the debit card system, which works in very few of the businesses that have opened since Thursday.
Before that, the island was already under the oversight of a fiscal control board created by U.S. Congress to adjust the local government’s finances, which faced liquidity problems and was defaulting on its $73 billion public debt. The matter is before the federal court, where a bankruptcy-like process under Title III of the Promesa federal law is underway.
For this reason, Rosselló asked Congress to provide the funds needed for Puerto Rico’s recovery after the hurricane, but the total damage sustained has yet to be calculated. He also demanded equal treatment for the U.S. citizens residing in the territory in terms of the emergency response from the federal government.
“We had already made countless efforts to be able to have government liquidity. We had over $2 billion in liquidity,” the governor said at a press conference at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in Miramar. “Now all our revenue will be wiped out. Our government won’t see revenue in the coming months and we still have countless expenses in addition to the emergency expenses. Therefore, if we don’t have the proper tools or adequate flexibility to be able to avoid a public health crisis, then we could face that humanitarian crisis.”His fourth request is an exemption from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirement that the local government provide 25 percent of the total funds required to meet an emergency. This exemption, he said, should be extended by 100 percent to funds received in the future in terms of infrastructure and “permanent” repairs.
The last request is that Puerto Rico be provided with financing mechanisms at a time when the government can’t access bond markets. We are asking for the possibility of being able to get these federal loans with the collaboration of the [U.S.] Treasury, with the Fed [Federal Reserve], at low interest rates for Puerto Rico to supplement the government funds,” he said.
“If we cannot provide that food continues to arrive in an appropriate manner or if we don’t have access to power areas that are critical infrastructure–health, sewers, etc.–we are closer to a humanitarian crisis. What I’m doing is alerting ahead of time,” added the governor, who saw the island’s devastation from the air and ground.
Rosselló said he trusted the “solidarity” that many members of Congress have expressed, but asked them to “manifest it concretely” by sending a funding package “that can truly help Puerto Rico rebuild itself stronger than ever.”
He also said Monday that 15 routes to provide municipalities with food had been established and that there will be air routes for inaccessible towns.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, he said, will investigate the situation with the island’s mail, which is managed by the U.S. Postal Service, which has yet to say when it will reestablish service, leaving residents without a access to resources.
The governor’s expressions came after a conversation with FEMA Administrator Brock Long, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Thomas Bossert, the National Security adviser to President Donald Trump who were on the island Monday to get a firsthand look at the hurricane’s aftermath.