Congressional Democrats on Wednesday called federal relief efforts in Puerto Rico “insufficient,” demanding that President Trump mobilize more military support and increase health funding to prevent a worsening of the humanitarian crisis triggered there by Hurricane Maria.
In separate letters to the White House, more than a hundred members of the House and several senators said swift action is necessary in light of reports that relief workers have yet to reach people in remote areas, which are running out of food and water and still lack electricity, and that efforts to distribute supplies are being hampered by looting and crime.
“If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico — and this will become his Katrina,” Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said in a statement, referring to the hurricane that decimated parts of New Orleans in 2005 and became a symbol of dysfunctional federal disaster response. “Every second in this effort counts and the stakes are too high for further delay, inaction or inefficiency.”
Trump has spoken approvingly of federal efforts underway in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and he plans to visit the region next week. “Everybody has said it’s amazing the job that we’ve done in Puerto Rico,” Trump said during a Rose Garden news conference Tuesday. “We’re very proud of it . . . This was a place that was destroyed. I think we’ve done a very good job.”
But lawmakers, particularly Democrats and those of Puerto Rican descent, have expressed growing worries that the response has been slower than during other natural disasters, and that the delays are harming an island that was suffering from a devastating recession and a fragile infrastructure before the Category 4 storm blew through last week.
In the Senate, Democratic lawmakers called on Trump to expand his disaster declaration to encompass the entire island of 3.4 million U.S. citizens; just some of Puerto Rico’s municipalities are under a full disaster declaration, the senators said. Among those areas that lack such a designation are two being threatened by a dam that is at risk of bursting in the northwest, the senators said.
The senators also urged Trump to boost Medicaid funding to Puerto Rico, which receives less under the health insurance program for the poor than do states. Federal grant money meant to prop up the medical system there is set to run out within months, leaving residents vulnerable just as a health crisis is unfolding, they said.
“While they slowly begin their recovery, more help is needed,” the senators said of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the letter led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
Lawmakers in both chambers called on Trump to appoint a czar to coordinate efforts, which they said is necessary to ensure that local leaders have a point person on the ground. Earlier in the day, the Pentagon announced the deployment of Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, a one-star general, to coordinate operations and make recommendations for further intervention.
Velazquez and 144 of her colleagues in the House said the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was used to help with recovery efforts in Miami after Hurricane Irma earlier this year, should be deployed to Puerto Rico. They said an expanded military presence also would help address growing security threats as people scramble for dwindling supplies of food, water, fuel and other necessities.
“We have heard reports that the ongoing supply shortages are causing looting and crime,” the letter from the House members said. Better security forces would ensure that people “do not need to fear for their lives when filling up their gas at the pump or securing food for their family.”