Lawmakers warn Trump: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands could become Katrina-like disaster

The Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could become a Hurricane Katrina-like political disaster if he does not respond to the storms’ aftermath more decisively, congressional lawmakers from both parties warned Tuesday.

“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who spent Monday in San Juan with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress, warned Trump that “If you don’t take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.”

President George W. Bush’s response to Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, was criticized as initially weak and insensitive.

Bush did a flyover in Air Force One to survey the damage rather than land, a move that he described in 2010 as a “huge mistake.”

When Bush did visit the area, he praised the much-maligned performance of then-FEMA Secretary Michael Brown.

“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” Bush said as water and provisions were in short supply for New Orleans survivors of the storm.

Tuesday, lawmakers delivered the dire message to the White House following a Monday night tweet by Trump in which he spoke about the devastation in Puerto Rico but also mentioned the island’s debt crisis.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president wrote.

Rubio declined to comment on Trump's tweets that were critical of Puerto Rico's financial situation.

“You guys will cover that. I'm focused on getting relief there,” Rubio said.

Other Republicans were reluctant to publicly draw comparisons to Trump’s handling of the Caribbean hurricanes to Bush, though they said the response to Hurricane Maria is a test for the current White House and GOP.

“It’s a mark on us” if Republicans don’t treat Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands the same as Texas and Florida, said Rep. Mark Walker, R, N.C.

“The administration’s approval rating’s jump in the last couple of weeks have been because of how well this administration and Congress have handled some of the natural disasters we’ve seen,” said Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “You would hate to lose ground on that for that good work because we didn’t follow through on Puerto Rico.”

“To say that I’m exceedingly concerned about Puerto Rico would be an understatement,” added Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

“This has been beyond catastrophic,” said Diaz-Balart, whose South Florida district includes portions of Naples that are still recovering from Hurricane Irma.

Diaz-Balart said the federal response in Puerto Rico so far has been “aggressive” but that a large military presence will be required and that Congress will need to pass another multi-billion dollar relief package “relatively soon.”  

Republican leaders in the House and Senate stressed Tuesday that the hurricane-scarred U.S. territories will receive the same amount of attention and levels of recovery funding as Texas and Florida, which were severely damaged by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters that money from a $15 billion aid bill that Congress passed to help victims of Harvey and Irma can be used for Puerto Rico recovery efforts.

“And I also want the people of Puerto Rico to know that they’re going to get the kind of support and the aid that Texas and Florida have…enjoyed,” he said.

Ryan echoed a vow made Monday by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, on help for the U.S. territories.

“The challenges they face are tremendous,” he said. “But they should be reassured that they are entitled to equal treatment under the law and the appropriations committee and House leadership will assure that every step of the way.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that the recovery effort in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands “is certainly not going to be easy” and “It’s not going to be quick.”

“But we’re here to do our part,” he added.

Even the White House appeared to recalibrate in the aftermath of Trump’s tweet. The administration announced that Trump made additional disaster assistance available to Puerto Rico by increasing the level of federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures.

Several Republicans and Democrats urged the White House to appoint a general to oversee recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“We’re looking for a more robust response,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joe Crowley of New York.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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