May 31, 2018
Springfield Republican: Puerto Ricans still suffering from hurricane damage. It's time for Congress to act
Eight months ago, Hurricane Maria turned Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands into a disaster zone. The storm ripped the roofs off homes and businesses, flooded mountainous regions, washed out roads, and destroyed critical infrastructure. Puerto Rico's power grid was demolished. Millions of residents were left without power, clean water, or access to help.
We witnessed the hurricane's lasting, devastating consequences firsthand when we visited Puerto Rico in January along with other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. During our visit, we met with people working hard to support the recovery at hospitals, community health centers, and shelters. We saw the challenges facing the island - including the downed power lines, the warnings on water fountains that the water was unsafe, and the homes that were reduced to naked walls, with no roofs, no windows and no doors.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey
When FEMA ends the Transitional Shelter Assistance program on June 30, many of these evacuees are caught between two impossible situations - at risk of becoming homeless if they don't return to Puerto Rico and living in dangerously substandard housing if they do return. To be sure, conditions in Puerto Rico have improved, but there are still major blackouts, the health care system is still reeling, and much of the housing is not yet repaired. And the next hurricane season begins this week.
The good news is FEMA has the tools to help these evacuees get back on their feet. The bad news is that FEMA refuses to use those tools. In prior disasters, FEMA has worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to stand up the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). This program was specifically designed to address the medium- and longer-term housing needs of survivors of natural disasters. It was used following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and Sandy. The program provides subsidies to help families pay rent, put down a security deposit, or pay for utilities - support that is critical as the storm survivors work to establish themselves in their communities.
If the Trump administration continues to turn its back on these U.S. citizens in need, it's time for Congress to act. That's why we are introducing the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act in the U.S. Senate. The bill directs FEMA to work with HUD to stand up DHAP for Hurricane Maria survivors within 15 days of the bill's enactment. For future disasters, FEMA and HUD have 60 days to start discussions about setting up the program. The bill would also implement changes to make it easier for evacuees without formal title to their land on the island to get and use FEMA assistance. Representative Adriano Espaillat of New York introduced this legislation in the House. Families are on the brink of homelessness, and we urge Congress to act quickly to pass it in both chambers.
The day before Hurricane Maria made landfall, President Trump tweeted "Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you - will be there to help!" Eight months later, on the brink of a new hurricane season, the President has broken his promise. The failure of FEMA to use the tools at its disposal, including DHAP, to help survivors is profoundly troubling. Passing the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act would start to get us back on track to fulfilling our obligations to our fellow citizens who have already suffered too long.
Read the full op-ed on the Springfield Republican website here.