December 16, 2019

Lawmakers Request that Inspector General Review FEMA's Faltering Efforts to Rebuild Vieques' Closed Health Care Facility

More than two years after Hurricane Maria Devastated Puerto Rico, 9,000 U.S. citizens still lack access to a functioning health care facility on Vieques; Current law requires FEMA to replace or restore critical service facilities damaged by the storm

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), and House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG) Joseph V. Cuffari requesting an audit or evaluation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) efforts to reconstruct the Vieques public community health center (Centro de Salud Familiar Susana Centeno).

Vieques, a Puerto Rican island located roughly seven miles off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico, is home to thousands of U.S. citizens and was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The public community health center was the only facility performing the functions of a hospital on the island-municipality and has remained closed since suffering hurricane damage, despite the Bipartisan Budget Act and the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, signed into law in February 2018 and June 2019, respectively, requiring FEMA to replace or restore critical service facilities damaged by the storm.

In May 2019, several Members of Congress urged FEMA to take rapid and robust action to help rebuild the Vieques health facility following damage from Hurricane Maria in September 2017 that led to the facility's closing. The facility remains closed, and the island's 9,000 residents - including those with serious health problems - must still take the ferry to the mainland of Puerto Rico to receive even basic care. Congress has not yet received a written response to their May 2019 letter.

"It is unacceptable that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico continue to lack access to high-quality critical health services years after a disaster, and that FEMA has failed to take rapid and robust action to provide viequenses with needed recovery resources that have been and are being provided to other U.S. jurisdictions and communities," wrote the lawmakers.

FEMA informed Congressional staff during a November 14, 2019 briefing that the agency had identified the medical center as an "ambulatory health care facility" rather than a hospital, which could result in less funding for, and more limited health services in, a reconstructed facility. The lawmakers' letter criticizes this decision, noting that the Vieques public community health center performed the functions of a hospital before the hurricane, housing the island's only labor and delivery room and providing inpatient admissions, despite lacking formal hospital designation. The facility also housed the Vieques VA Clinic and provided access to primary care for the island's veterans.

"It remains troubling that while the public community health center remains closed, forcing viequenses to depend on interim health services, FEMA continues to make determinations and policy choices that may limit the ultimate restoration of pre-disaster services to Vieques," the lawmakers wrote.

Senator Warren has been a steadfast champion for Puerto Rico and has paid special attention to Vieques.

  • In July 2019, Senator Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), along with 15 of their colleagues, sent a letter to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees urging them to include a provision funding the safe cleanup of military waste on Vieques in the final National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. The effort was successful.
  • Earlier in May 2019, she re-introduced the U.S. Territorial Relief Act, along with Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Representative Velázquez, to provide a pathway to comprehensive debt relief for Puerto Rico and other disaster-ravaged U.S. territories so they can recover and rebuild with dignity.
  • In March 2018, she joined her colleagues in writing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request information about the draw-down of Army Corps personnel working on electricity restoration, especially on Vieques.
  • In October 2017, she and Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) led their colleagues in urging the Trump Administration to prioritize hurricane relief efforts on Vieques and Culebra, another Puerto Rican island, and called on the White House to swiftly secure the Superfund site on Vieques. Earlier that month, she led her colleagues in calling on President Trump to step up disaster recovery efforts on Vieques and Culebra after the islands were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
For more information about her extensive work fighting for robust recovery efforts for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as her work fighting for comprehensive debt relief for the island, visit