A bipartisan group of legislators flew over the devastated interior of Puerto Rico on Saturday and returned to the island’s capital voicing astonishment at the level of destruction left by Hurricane Maria.
“The scope of the devastation was really sobering,” said Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pennsylvania, whose district has a heavy Puerto Rican presence.
The legislators voiced broad support for a robust relief package, saying that Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, should be treated like the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy slammed into land in 2012.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he was told by the head of Puerto Rico’s National Guard that the Pentagon would soon boost its post-hurricane deployment to 17,000 military personnel. It currently stands at around 12,000 troops.
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“That’s a tremendous ramp up,” Blumenthal said, adding that his “heart broke” on seeing the island’s devastation.
“We have a moral obligation as Americans, and my fear very simply is that America will fail Puerto Rico,” Blumenthal said.
But Republican and Democratic legislators in the delegation said they would try to ensure that doesn’t happen, starting with emergency help to get the island’s power grid back in shape. About 90 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power after the Sept. 20 hurricane.
“We are fully aware of your plight, your suffering,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Senate homeland security panel. “You will not be forgotten.”
Johnson and a fellow Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, said their first priority would be to restore power to the island of 3.4 million U.S. citizens.
“If you’re a utility CEO and you’re listening to this right now, I hope you will contact the Puerto Rico power authority,” Sen. Gardner said. “Come into Puerto Rico. Contact them. Let’s make sure we get this grid built.”
Earlier in the day, the chief of staff to Gov. Ricardo Rossello, William Villafañe, said he believes as many as 100,000 people lost their wooden homes in Puerto Rico’s interior.
I have never seen anything of the magnitude of this.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat
“I have never seen anything of the magnitude of this,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said after the flyover the 10 legislators made.
Kaine said the storm knocked down two pillars of the island’s economy, agriculture and tourism, and that Congress cannot deal with the disaster “on the nickel and dime.”
“Look at what we did after Katrina at $100 billion in relief. Look at what we did after Sandy at $50 [billion] to $80 billion in relief,” Kaine said. “It’s not about throwing a dollar here and there.”
A current Hurricane Maria relief proposal winding through Congress totals $29 billion but the majority of the funds deal with a national flood insurance program and funds to help fight wildfires in the West, leaving $12.5 billion for Hurricane Maria relief, Kaine said.
He said he was heartened that federal officials told the delegation that the allotment, when approved on Capitol Hill, would pay for “an assessment of what the real needs are.”
A battle over relief will certainly unfold on Capitol Hill, Blumenthal said.
“We’re going to have a fight. There’s no question,” he said. “I went through this fight to get relief on Sandy and Sandy was in the Northeast, just a train ride from Washington D.C.”
Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, would lead a second congressional delegation to Puerto Rico in the coming week.
Tim Johnson, 202-288-9536, @timjohnson4