***VIDEO*** Menendez on Senate Floor Calls for Puerto Rico Aid Package and Blasts Trump’s Lackluster Response to Hurricane Maria
***VIDEO*** Menendez on Senate Floor Calls for Puerto Rico Aid Package and Blasts Trump’s Lackluster Response to Hurricane Maria
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the most senior Hispanic Member of Congress, spoke on the Senate Floor today to call for a long-term recovery and supplemental aid package for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Menendez spoke about the conditions on the ground following his fact-finding mission to Puerto Rico to survey the damage, and blasted the Trump Administration for its lackluster response to the human catastrophe playing out on the island.
“I rise today, like I have on so many occasions, to give voice to the three and half million Americans who call Puerto Rico home. Their lives have been turned upside down by Hurricane Maria. Now more than ever, they desperately need to be heard.” said Sen. Menendez. “The truth is, this situation would be unacceptable in any major city on the U.S. mainland. But as the people of Puerto Rico know all too well, they don’t get the same treatment as their fellow citizens on the mainland. Hurricane Maria didn’t create this disparity. But it exposed the long-standing inequities that have hindered the island’s success for generations. This is an all-hands on deck situation for the federal government, but Congress also has a responsibility to act.”
The Senator brought to the floor a series of photos and an infographic which can be downloaded for use here.
Since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, leaving behind historic devastation, Sen. Menendez:
- Called for the President to use authority given to him under the Cold War-Era Defense Production Act to use Defense Department resources to more quickly respond.
- Sent a letter with his Senate colleagues asking President Trump to waive the local cost shares for Puerto Rico for FEMA disaster assistance. The cost share for most projects is 75% federal, 25% local.
- Lead a coalition of Senators in writing to Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell urging them to bring up an emergency disaster supplemental bill to fund CDBG-DR, FEMA’s disaster relief fund (DRF), and other disaster accounts. FEMA is expected to run out of money in its DRF before the end of the calendar year and no CDBG-DR funding is currently available for PR.
- Sent a letter to U.S. Airlines serving Puerto Rico requesting they take additional steps that ensure victims of Hurricane Maria are not stuck on the island due to unreasonable fees or exorbitant ticket prices to the mainland United States.
- Joined colleagues in sending a letter expressing deep concern about the situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and outlining eight specific actions to be undertaken by the Trump administration.
The Senator’s full remarks as prepared for delivery:
Mr. President, I rise today – like I have on so many occasions – to give voice to the three and half million Americans who call Puerto Rico home. Their lives have been turned upside down by Hurricane Maria. Now more than ever, they desperately need to be heard. And I invite my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join me in amplifying the voices of millions of Puerto Ricans calling out for help, and the millions here on the mainland who’ve yet to hear from their families.
Here on the floor with me today are aerial photos of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria – the astounding damage I saw firsthand when I toured Puerto Rico by helicopter on Friday.
Take this collapsed bridge in the municipality of Utuado, situated in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. The 30,000 Americans who live in Utuado depend on these bridges to cross the beautiful rivers that run through it every day. But today, those 30,000 Americans are secluded, waiting in the dark and wondering when help will arrive.
Images like these have stayed with me from the moment I left Puerto Rico, and I share them today because the people of Puerto Rico need our collective voices and support to stop this humanitarian crisis from devolving into a full blown American tragedy.
If we hope to overcome the monumental challenges before us, we need a full grasp of the reality on the ground. I thought that’s why President Trump went to Puerto Rico this week - to get a dose of reality. Instead, the President continued to feed us his own warped version of reality.
The President told the people of Puerto Rico they should be “very proud” that the death count was only “16 versus literally thousands of people,” who died in “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” Certainly that was a “real catastrophe” but this is no less real for the people of Puerto Rico. Moments later the AP reported that fatalities in Puerto Rico have tragically risen to 34. And while I pray it’s not the case, I fear that it’s much worse. In short, the situation is perilous and we don’t have a moment to waste.
Like many, I had hoped that during his visit to Puerto Rico, the President would take the high road and set a new tone after his Administration’s woefully delayed and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria.
Instead, the President took to victim-blaming at a whole new level. He told emergency responders and local elected officials that, and I quote, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.” Well, Mr. President, perhaps we’ll have to dial back the budget-bursting trillion dollar tax cuts you want to give billionaire families like yours.
Because it’s going to take more than paper towels to help the people of Puerto Rico!
In this country, we don’t turn our backs on Americans in need. We don’t complain about how much it costs to restore power to hospitals, or rebuild roads in ruin, or get clean drinking water and food and medicine to the hungry and frail. We’re the United States of America and we’re there for each other, whether it’s Texas after Harvey or Florida after Irma or New Jersey after Sandy or Puerto Rico after Maria.
If you heard the President speak earlier this week, you would hear that everything is going great, and he, in particular, is doing the greatest job any President has ever done in the history of the world.
The Administration will tell you that the majority of hospitals are open, but leave out the fact that many are running on emergency generators at significantly reduced capacity. They’ll leave out how the shortages of ambulances, fuel, and functional roads have made getting to the hospital nearly impossible. And even if you do find a way there, the hospitals might not have the medicine, supplies, or doctors you need.
The Administration will boast that it has set up 11 distribution points for food, water and other necessities. But what good is a distribution center that takes hours to reach and is out of supplies before you get there?
They’ll brag that about half of the people have access to running water, but neglect to say that in some rural areas in the north, barely over 13 percent of people have access to running water. They’ll boast about all the buildings being inspected, but look at this image I took 5 days before the President landed. This is just 25 minutes outside of San Juan. Hurricane Maria destroyed many of the wooden homes that populate the island and weakened many of its cement structures.
It is impossible that ALL of these structures would have been inspected for safety. I saw this same sight across Puerto Rico - in communities near the Capital, in the mountains, and along the coast.
What does all this tell us? It tells us an unfortunate truth: the Administration’s response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate from the start. For two weeks, Puerto Ricans cried out for help: help accessing clean water, help powering hospitals, help feeding families.
Yet the President accused them – the victims of this historic natural disaster – of being ingrates, clamoring for handouts. He dismissed the urgency of their situation. And he effectively called the Mayor of San Juan another nasty woman who should pipe down.
Well, this is the Mayor of San Juan, wading through the water. Does this look a woman who isn’t taking responsibility? Not to me. This looks like a leader doing everything she can to save lives!
I knew from the start that we weren’t getting the full picture, and because the Administration went out of its way not to provide support for a bipartisan congressional delegation to visit the island, I decided to go myself. After all, it will be the responsibility of Congress to fund disaster relief and long-term recovery on these islands and we need the facts in order to produce the right legislation.
So last Friday I boarded an American Airlines flight to Puerto Rico. Now let me be clear. I have visited the island of Puerto Rico numerous times over the past 25 years, both in my official capacity as a Member of Congress and personally to vacation.
It is no exaggeration to say that the island I saw on Friday is not the island I’ve known and loved. The lush green tropical landscape that comes to mind when we think of Puerto Rico was mostly devoid of life.
I met with the Governor of Puerto Rico. I spoke to local law enforcement officials, first responders and Federal FEMA officials. And with the help of the Governor’s office and the Puerto Rico Joint Forces of Rapid Action or FURA as they’re known on the island, I surveyed the damage by helicopter.
I saw debris, mudslides and fallen trees on the inland streets; destroyed homes sprinkled with the occasional – yet all too familiar blue of FEMA tarps. A dead green hue covered the landscape that was such foreign a sight to me, that I caught myself thinking I was somewhere else.
Here’s an all too familiar scene - a seemingly strong cement structure. On the surface impervious to the strong winds of a hurricane, and yet it’s now on the verge of sinking into the earth. The Hurricane eroded so much land that in some inner parts of the island, landslides have become the new normal. The people who lived here may never be able to return. Entire generations of close-knit communities may never be the same.
Despite these dire conditions, during my visit to Puerto Rico I felt the spirit of community and commitment shared by so many Americans across the island. After Hurricane Maria, they awoke to devastation, no communication, and the isolating effect of roads being cut-off by fallen trees, electrical posts, and debris.
As they wait and wonder when their government will come to their aid, they are doing everything they can to survive. They’ve taken matters into their own hands. They’re clearing roads, sheltering relatives who’ve lost their homes, working together to care for the most vulnerable.
Through it all I saw the same hardworking spirit alive in Puerto Rico that I see whenever I speak with Puerto Rican families there and across New Jersey where so many of my constituents are mobilizing to send help as they anxiously wait to hear from their families.
Like so many Americans, I too worried about my family on the island. My brother faces health challenges – and I worried about his care. Fortunately we had a brief moment to meet. I was able to give him some supplies, and help one person. But as tough as his situation was, he’s one of the lucky ones. He lives in a suburb of San Juan, which is relatively better off than the more remote, rural areas.
So, fifteen days after the storm ravaged the island, where does it stand? Well, 91% of our fellow Americans are still without power. And I can tell you firsthand the heat and humidity is stifling and oppressive.
57% of Puerto Rico has no cell phone service - meaning people have no way of connecting to their families on the mainland or calling for help when they need it.
And day by day, fewer and fewer Puerto Ricans have access to clean running water. From October 2nd to October 3rd, the population with running water dropped from 29 percent to 13 percent.
The truth is this situation would be unacceptable in any major city on the U.S. mainland. But as the people of Puerto Rico know all too well, they don’t get the same treatment as their fellow citizens on the mainland.
The ugly truth is that for generations, Congress has treated the people of Puerto Rico, not as our fellow Americans, not as people who have fought and bled for their country like the famous Borinquneers who received the Congressional Gold Medal, but as second class citizens.
Hurricane Maria didn’t create this disparity, but it exposed the long-standing inequities that have hindered the island’s success for generations. The people of Puerto Rico don’t receive equal Medicaid funding, Medicare coverage, or access to tax credits. These aren’t just numbers on a ledger. They’re long-term care for a grandparent, treatment for a critically ill child, and a fair shot to make a living wage and raise a family.
This didn’t happen overnight— these wrongs add up overtime. As Governor Rossello said so eloquently, “I invite you to reflect on why Puerto Rico is in the current state of disadvantage and inequality. It’s not something that happened just a few months or few weeks before this storm. It is a condition that has happened for more than a century in Puerto Rico. I invite you to reflect on the reality that even after the storm hit Puerto Rico, even when it was evident that it was a disaster in the United States, only half of our U.S. citizens knew that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.”
So when Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, these disparities, these inequalities were laid bare. None of this should have taken the Trump Administration by surprise.
We saw this storm coming. We knew for days that a Category 5 Hurricane was on a collision course with Puerto Rico, just as communities across the island were picking up the pieces after Irma. And we’ve known for years about the island’s aging infrastructure, like the downed powerline pictured here.
In short, all of us knew that Hurricane Maria was a recipe for disaster that would leave three and half million Americans imperiled, disconnected, in the dark.
It should not have taken the administration 12 days to issue a disaster declaration – something I called for – for 100% of the island. Because as I saw on Friday, there’s no community in Puerto Rico untouched by this tragedy. Focused leadership would have had a three-star general on the ground the moment the clouds parted – not 8 days after the storm struck. We needed medical evacuation vessels, aid and relief delivery systems on standby, the USNS Comfort ready for immediate deployment.
Instead, the Administration told us that Puerto Rico is hard because it’s an island in a big ocean. Well it happens to be an island of three and half million U.S. citizens.
We have no more time to waste. That’s why it’s so urgent that we take action now. If we can send 20,000 troops to Haiti, surely we can get more boots on the ground saving American lives in Puerto Rico.
We need more helicopters airdropping food and water to secluded communities. We need generators delivered and the repair of communications towers expedited. Now it’s up to the President to mobilize every resource possible to save lives, to get the lights turned on, to rebuild bridges, to reach secluded communities, to reconnect families.
We can’t afford to waste any more time – not when lives are on the line, not when elderly residents in nursing homes grow frailer by the moment, not when hungry American children have nothing to eat, not when communities are without clean drinking water for days on end.
So we have to keep the pressure on this Administration. That’s why I wrote the President urging he activate the Defense Production Act of 1950 so that the military could more quickly deliver vast private sector resources to those in need.
That’s why my colleagues and I wrote the White House and urged FEMA to waive disaster relief cost-sharing, because as the Governor told me “I have no revenue coming in.” So how can I get the 75 percent of disaster aid from the federal government if I can’t come up with the 25 percent?
That’s why we’ve written the USDA asking they use all available resources to get food to the people of Puerto Rico.
This is an all-hands on deck situation for the federal government. But Congress also has a responsibility to act. That’s why I sent a letter to Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan urging they bring forward an emergency supplemental aid package and fund Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery.
It’s up to us here in Congress to immediately authorize not just the emergency funding needed to save lives in Puerto Rico but also the assistance needed for a full-powered recovery.
We must give Puerto Ricans the tools to rebuild. That means making sure that Puerto Rico’s financial control board gives the Governor the flexibility to spearhead this recovery. Board members of that control board should be on the island, assessing the damage, speaking to the survivors, and allowing Governor Rosello to create a new budget that reflects Puerto Rico’s post-Maria reality.
The damage, by some estimates, could be as much as $90 billion. So adjusting expectations and enabling flexibility is absolutely critical going forward. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the people of Puerto Rico must come before Wall Street creditors. And as it turns out, this is one area where the President and I can find common ground. Just last night, he called for Puerto’s Rico’s debt to be WIPED OUT.
I hope all of us, the Administration, my colleagues in Congress, and the fiscal control board can work together to jumpstart Puerto Rico’s recovery, and that must include enabling flexibility, addressing the island’s crippling debt and ensuring that pensions are protected and paid. Imagine having retired, facing this dire situation, having no other income and then your pension doesn’t arrive?
All of us here in the Senate have a responsibility to stand with Puerto Rico. How we respond to this crisis will have profound consequences not just for the Americans who live on Puerto Rico today – but for generations to come.
We need to pass a disaster package that matches the astounding damage suffered by the island. The photos I’ve brought to the floor give you a glimpse – but not a full picture – of the devastation on the ground. It’s not enough to reconnect a faulty, ailing power grid. It’s time to be proactive and rebuild Puerto Rico so that it is prepared for the next storm and for the 21st century. It’s time to fix the underlying disparities that have hindered Puerto Rico’s success – otherwise we’ll simply be rebuilding a broken foundation.
I will remind my colleagues that Puerto Ricans are not just citizens of the United States, which in and of itself should be a compelling argument for helping Puerto Ricans as our fellow Americans. They have fought to defend our nation, from World War I to the War on Terror. Take a walk down to the Vietnam Memorial and you will see Puerto Rican names engraved in that stone far in excess of the number of people proportionate to the American population.
Throughout our history, Puerto Ricans have given their lives so that we may remain the Land of the Free, and to this day more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans serve in every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Let’s also remember that beyond the 3.4 million citizens living on the island, there are five million Puerto Ricans living in our states, our congressional districts, and our communities. In the aftermath of this unprecedented disaster - these Americans deserve the same rights, respect, and response from their federal government.
That’s what I told leaders from New Jersey’s Puerto Rican community earlier this week - assemblymen and women, mayors, community leaders, concerned citizens.
We all remembered how hard it was to secure the funding we needed to rebuild New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. We had to fight tooth and nail every step of the way.
And guess what? We had two U.S. Senators and 13 members of Congress, joined by colleagues from New York and Connecticut, leading that fight.
The Americans in Puerto Rico have no vote in the Senate, they have no votes in Congress, and the fight to rebuild Puerto Rico will be that much harder. But as I have in the past, I intend to be their voice and their vote in the U.S. Senate.
Now is not the time to pretend like recovery will be a piece of cake. No one – not the Governor, not the President, not any one of us – should sugarcoat the human catastrophe playing out in Puerto Rico.
It’s time for honesty – about the conditions on the ground, the challenges we face, and the actions we must take. Yes, Puerto Rico is an island in the middle of an ocean. But we are the most powerful nation on earth. We have the most advanced military capabilities ever known and the most skilled armed forces in the world. We have to be there for 3.4 million Americans in need.
We’re the United States of America. We do the impossible. We give our men and women in uniform any mission and they rise to the occasion.
If we conducted the Berlin Airlift, set up tactical operations in the mountains of Afghanistan, built green zones in Baghdad in the height of the Iraq war, then surely we can save the lives of Americans in danger, and surely we can rebuild Puerto Rico. We must not rest until every American is safe and the work of rebuilding is done.
With that, I yield the floor.