Missing from the Senate Disaster Aid Package: Puerto Rico

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

In 2017, Hurricane Maria barreled down on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, wreaking devastation on the islands not paralleled in the United States in about a century. Maria—according to official estimates by Puerto Rico—claimed nearly 3,000 lives, precipitating housing and health crises, and exposing key vulnerabilities in the island's water and energy infrastructure.

Puerto Rico needs more federal assistance to recover from Hurricane Maria: nearly 1.3 million Puerto Rican residents have been hit by food stamp cuts, and the island’s already-fragile infrastructure, pummeled by the hurricane, remains in perilous shape.  

Congress is currently considering dueling bills providing disaster relief to states and territories devastated by natural disasters. The House bill sponsored by Rep. Lowey would replenish much-needed federal loan funds for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Texas to the tune of $500 million. This money is desperately needed by Puerto Rico. The island’s largest water and wastewater utility has found that more than 5,000 facilities need to be repaired or rebuilt in the wake of the hurricane. The island’s water utility has also added nearly $1 billion in emergency and permanent work costs to its five-year budget to remedy damage caused by the hurricane, and acknowledges that this is likely a substantial underestimate of the funds needed to salvage Puerto Rico’s degraded water systems. Efforts to appraise the full extent of the cost of damage inflicted by Maria to the island’s water systems are ongoing. The island has only recently regained access to federal loan funds for water infrastructure upgrades administered by the federal government: Puerto Rico was previously unable to repay loans owed for necessary upgrades to give residents safe and reliable water.

The House bill would also deliver a small but crucial helping hand to the island’s energy grid, which was decimated after the hurricane, leaving millions of residents in the dark for months on end. Puerto Rico’s government had requested nearly $18 billion to rebuild the power grid months after the hurricane hit—nine times what Congress provided for that purpose last year. The House measure would allocate $15.5 million to provide technical assistance to rebuild electric grids in communities impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and Super Typhon Yutu, aiding not only Puerto Rico, but also Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana islands which are facing similarly slow and painful recoveries from the slate of hurricanes and cyclones in 2017 and 2018.

A bill put forward in the Senate proposes to strip most aid for Puerto Rico save for a smaller allocation for nutrition assistance. The Senate bill would remove a 100% federal cost share of FEMA aid to Puerto Rico—critical for the cash-strapped island. Additionally, the Lowey bill language that would have permitted FEMA to waive “prior-condition” limitations to allow the territories to rebuild to modern, safer, and stronger standards has also been axed by the Senate bill, preventing the territories, and taxpayers, from reducing their exposure to another Maria-scale storm.

Congress must help all Americans and not shirk its responsibility towards Puerto Rico. As written, the Senate package omits vital relief for Americans in Puerto Rico, who have suffered since Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic landfall in 2017. Helping all disaster victims should be a national priority. 

About the Authors

Mekela Panditharatne

EJW Law Fellow, Science and Data, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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