February 25, 2020 | By Caribbean Business
Photo: Getty Images
SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced has sent a letter to the U.S. Senate’s leadership urging quick passage of the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2020, H.R. 5687, which would allocate disaster relief funding to help address the ongoing earthquakes that have struck the island’s southwest since Dec. 28.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5687 on Feb. 7, and the bill is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.
H.R. 5687 would allocate $4.89 billion in emergency supplemental funding to provide aid for educational needs, repairs to transportation and infrastructure, and disaster relief measures. It also includes provisions that would provide Puerto Rico the ability to use funding provided in this legislation with funding in previous emergency disaster supplementals.
After the major disaster declaration (MDD) was signed on Jan. 16, 19 additional municipalities have been included to receive federal assistance as estimates of damages continue to be calculated. Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has estimated that the ongoing seismic activity will continue for the foreseeable six months to a year, the governor’s office said.
“H.R. 5687 would provide critical aid that will allow for the restoration of infrastructure and provide housing while mitigating the potential harm from future natural disasters,” reads a press release announcing the governor’s request.“
We urge the U.S. Senate to consider and pass H.R. 5687 so that Puerto Rico can access critical resources in this great time of need,” executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, Jennifer M. Storipan, is quoted as saying in the release. “We must guarantee access and assistance so that the people of Puerto Rico can continue to move forward with the island’s recovery.”
The full text of Vázquez’s letter to the Senate follows:
Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Democratic Leader Schumer:
I write to urge for your swift consideration and passage of the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief and Puerto Rico Disaster Tax Relief Act, 2020, H.R. 5678. Since December 28th, 2019, Puerto Rico has experienced over 2,371 seismic events that have caused critical damage to numerous private and public structures. The most impactful of these earthquakes occurred on January 7th, 2020, which struck with a magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale and left one confirmed fatality. H.R. 5687 would allocate over $4.89 billion in emergency supplemental funding to provide significant aid to Puerto Rico for educational needs, repairs to transportation and infrastructure, and community development activities in response to the ongoing earthquakes.
Thus far, the federal government has responded swiftly to the island’s needs in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes. On January 8th, 2020, U.S. Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico. On January 16th, 2020, President Trump signed the Major Disaster Declaration (MDD) for public and individual assistance to 6 municipalities, which was later expanded to an additional 10 municipalities on January 22nd, 2020, and an additional 9 municipalities on February 6th, 2020. The Government of Puerto Rico is working directly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to ensure efficient application of Categories A and B disaster assistance However, the ongoing seismic events and continuous displacement of individuals will require additional federal resources to meet the infrastructure, physical health, and mental health needs of U.S. citizens throughout Puerto Rico.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has estimated that the ongoing seismic activity will continue for the foreseeable six months to a year. H.R. 5687 would provide the funding mechanisms to support the ongoing recovery efforts on the island, while promoting the long-term stability of Puerto Rico. Currently, there are a total of 31 shelters with 894 displaced residents. Out of 857 schools that were set to open prior to the earthquakes, 756 have resumed classes. As a result of the ongoing seismic events and risk to the structural stability of impacted schools, every school is being monitored and inspected to ensure the safety of teachers and students prior to classes beginning or resuming. The Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) has already inspected all the schools within their management, and 9 schools maintained by the Puerto Rico Public Buildings Authority (PRPBA) remain to be inspected. However, several of the most heavily impacted schools will likely be permanently closed and students will have to be relocated for the remainder of the school year.
H.R. 5687 provides much-needed aid to cover the housing and educational needs of displaced individuals throughout the island. The $101 million for educational purposes allows for the flexibility to address the unmet needs from previous and current disasters. This will allow for the expedited recovery of the K-12 school program and prevent further delays to the educational needs and progress of students. The $3.305 billion in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding will allow restoration of infrastructure and housing to mitigate the potential harm from future natural disasters. Furthermore, the conjunction of funds from the current and past disaster supplementals will allow for the expedited recovery and prevent further unnecessary bureaucratic delays.
The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have faced drastic challenges in recent years from the debt crisis to the severe storm damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the fall of 2017. The ongoing earthquakes have further exacerbated the ongoing physical, mental health, and infrastructure crises impacting Puerto Rico’s long-term prosperity. The disaster recovery and fiscal measures proposed by H.R. 5687 steer Puerto Rico towards financial and socioeconomic stability. It will alleviate several of the urgent needs presented by past, present, and future crises to ensure the pivotal prosperity of Puerto Rico.
As you consider the legislative calendar for the U.S. Senate, I urge for your swift consideration and passage of H.R. 5687. Given all the hardships faced by the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, it is my hope Congress acts quickly to respond to the island in this time of great need. Thank you in advance for your attention to this request.
Wanda Vázquez Garced
Governor of Puerto Rico
The Honorable Richard Shelby, Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations
The Honorable Patrick Leahy, Vice Chair, U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations
The Honorable Jenniffer González-Colón (PR-At-Large)
Jennifer M. Storipan, Executive Director, Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration
Access the letter here.