Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Cuomo, Visiting Puerto Rico, Chastises Federal Earthquake Response

The New York Times
By on January 15, 2020

Rubble from collapsed structures blocks a street in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2020. Tremors large and small have terrorized the island for more than two weeks. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)

“Once again, the federal government hasn’t showed up the way they should,” the New York governor said.

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York criticized the Trump administration’s response to a series of powerful earthquakes that has shaken Puerto Rico for weeks, toppling homes and knocking out power to parts of the island, which has still not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria.

If the effects of the tremors have reminded residents of Hurricane Maria’s devastation two years ago, so have the politics surrounding the recovery of the island, which experienced a magnitude-4.6 temblor on Tuesday morning.

“They didn’t respond appropriately at Hurricane Maria,” Cuomo said in New York City before boarding a plane to the island on Tuesday. “The president showed up and threw paper towels into the crowd, and now we have an earthquake and continuing tremors, and once again the federal government hasn’t showed up the way they should.”

Puerto Rico has become a recurring cudgel for Cuomo in his attacks on President Donald Trump, which have included criticism over federal immigration policy and the president’s failure to disclose his tax returns. Cuomo, a Democrat, has called Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria an “embarrassment” and “appalling.”

Cuomo did not offer specifics on his criticism of the federal government’s response to the earthquakes, which began in late December and have forced thousands of fearful residents to leave their homes: More than 8,000 residents are scattered in more than 40 shelters, and thousands more are sleeping in makeshift tents and inside parked cars near highways.

But the island is clearly showing signs of recovery: Electricity has been restored to 99% of customers, and the Army Corps of Engineers has mobilized personnel to help install generators.

Cuomo, along with a delegation of elected officials from New York, is expected to visit a power plant that was damaged in the southern part of the island, as well as a ravaged school and a shelter.

It is Cuomo’s seventh trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory in September 2017, knocking out power, water and telecommunications across the island and resulting in more than 3,000 fatalities.

Mr. Cuomo toured a major natural gas power plant that was damaged in the southern part of the island.
Mr. Cuomo toured a major natural gas power plant that was damaged in the southern part of the island. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times)

At the time, Cuomo deployed state resources to the island almost immediately. He has sought to frame New York’s response as more effective, albeit more modest, than that of the federal government. He used his visit on Tuesday to announce the deployment of 115 members of the National Guard, adding to the New York Power Authority personnel already helping the island’s government in repairing its power grid.

The Trump administration’s Hurricane Maria response has resurfaced in light of the recent temblors.

Chase Jennings, the press secretary for the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, said more than $90 billion had been forecast to be spent on Puerto Rico’s recovery.

“While we continue to ensure Puerto Rico has what they need, we must also make sure the proper guidelines are in place to make certain the people of Puerto Rico directly benefit, not politicians with their history of corruption,” he said in a statement.

Last week, Trump approved Puerto Rico’s request for an emergency declaration.

But on Monday, some Democratic members of Congress wrote to Trump, urging him to release more than $18 billion that was allocated to the island after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both two years ago.

“Let us be clear,” the letter said. “Postponing the disbursement of this vital assistance any longer — in the face of the humanitarian needs of Puerto Rico — is simply shameful.”

Thousands of reconstruction projects in Puerto Rico remain in limbo because of stalled federal funding, compared with speedier and more generous aid sent to hurricane-ravaged states like Florida and Texas.

After Hurricane Maria, New York sent utility poles and trucks, and about 500 workers who spent months on the island helping restore power. New Yorkers donated more than 4,000 pallets of canned goods and water bottles. And Cuomo mobilized Black Hawk helicopters and dozens of state troopers and members of the National Guard.

Last year, he commissioned a $700,000 memorial in the Battery Park City area in Manhattan to honor the victims of Hurricane Maria.

Like many in New York, the state with the largest Puerto Rican population, Cuomo has lengthy ties to the island.

In 1998, when Cuomo was the secretary of housing and urban development, President Bill Clinton sent him to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges, which left the island without power and destroyed thousands of homes, causing more than $2 billion in damage.

Cuomo oversaw part of the federal government’s response and worked closely with the island’s governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, the father of the recently ousted Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who welcomed Cuomo multiple times in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Cuomo has also attended an annual gathering of New York politicians and lobbyists in San Juan, and he spent Thanksgiving on the island with his daughters last year.

The visits are a savvy political move: More than 1 million Puerto Ricans live in New York, making it a timeworn tradition for candidates and elected officials to travel to the island and capitalize on its most pressing issues.

In 2001, for example, Gov. George E. Pataki flew to the territory to speak out against the Navy’s bombings in Vieques, a small island-town off the coast of Puerto Rico. Cuomo, who at the time was vying for the Democratic nomination to unseat Pataki, accused the former governor of pandering, saying: “He has paid no attention to Puerto Ricans.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday also sought to honor that tradition: Although he did not go to Puerto Rico, he appeared in Brooklyn to announce that New York City will send another team of city personnel to the island. The contingent of 24 workers, which includes 15 building inspectors and engineers, brings the total number of the city’s recovery team to 28.

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