Puerto Rico will need billions in federal help after Hurricane Maria

This Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, GOES East satellite image provided by NASA shows the eye of Hurricane Maria as it nears the island of Dominica. Maria has strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane.
This Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, GOES East satellite image provided by NASA shows the eye of Hurricane Maria as it nears the island of Dominica. Maria has strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane.

Puerto Rico’s power grid is a mess.

The island’s utility provider filed for a form of bankruptcy in July, and two months later Hurricane Irma passed just north of San Juan, knocking out power to nearly 1 million people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

With thousands still without power, Hurricane Maria is approaching. It will likely be Puerto Rico’s first direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane since 1928.

“No generation has seen a hurricane like this since San Felipe II in 1928,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló in a statement on Tuesday. “This is an unprecedented atmospheric system.”

The Puerto Rican government, which sought bankruptcy relief in exchange for supervised fiscal belt-tightening in May, will need federal assistance to recover from Maria and Irma. Repairing and replacing power lines and stations throughout the territory after Maria will likely cost billions, though the island doesn’t have any voting power in Congress.

“No member of Congress is going to want to see thousands of people die in Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat of Puerto Rican descent whose Orlando-based district includes a large number of Puerto Ricans.

“Certainly... the fiscal crisis has made PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] less financially prepared to do this on their own and the fact remains that this is part of the U.S,” Soto added.

Congress passed a Hurricane Harvey relief bill two weeks ago after Texas sustained billions in flood damage. The $15.25 billion package was part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democrats that included raising the nation’s debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through December.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that Irma and Maria will require “much more” than $15 billion in federal relief.

“We’re going to have to put the full resources of the federal government in there because this is a Cat 5 and they lost power on the last hurricane that brushed them,” Nelson said. “This is going full bore right into the island.”

But 107 Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the Harvey bill, suggesting that any effort to spend billions on Puerto Rico and Florida’s electrical grids will face some political opposition.

“The key is first to make sure they have the FEMA relief for the short term, whether it be food, shelter, electricians on the ground,” Soto said. “In the long term, we have to address the hardening of our electrical infrastructure in Florida and Puerto Rico.”

Soto, the only Puerto Rican in Congress from Florida, said that installing concrete electric poles and putting power lines underground is a necessary step to control damage costs for future storms in Puerto Rico and Florida.

But conservatives will likely oppose including long-term storm prevention measures in a hurricane relief bill.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who voted against a Hurricane Sandy relief bill in 2013, said he supports “emergency funding” from the federal government after hurricanes strike.

“What I did not support and would not support now is placing non-emergency funding in an emergency funding bill,” Rubio said in a statement. “Close to 70 percent of the funding in the Sandy supplemental was for spending on projects over three years after the storm. Many were worthy projects, but they should be funded as part of the yearly spending bill, not as part of an emergency funding measure designed to address the immediate costs of providing assistance after a disaster.”

The Sandy bill eventually passed months after the storm hit.

Soto isn’t as worried about a relief package for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, in part because Texas and Florida, two states controlled by Republicans, will need federal money to recover.

“The fact that two red states were hit hard through Irma and Harvey will play a very particular role in that this package won’t be as difficult to pass,” Soto said. “When Sandy hit New York we had the Texas delegation balk. But the politics will be in our favor for this disaster relief package.”

Soto said he’s been encouraged by Trump’s willingness to work with Democrats on the Harvey package, and that Trump’s visit to Southwest Florida, combined with a planned visit to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, will help the president understand how much must be done, particularly with regards to the power grid.

“We will save money by having a federal matching program to make infrastructure more resilient,” Soto said.

In the weeks ahead, Soto expects to work closely with Republican Puerto Rican resident commissioner Jenniffer González, a non-voting member of Congress, to ensure the island’s relief needs are met.

“We’re united by a common culture and by commerce,” Soto said. “We Central Floridians care deeply about the island.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty