Blumenthal, Murphy want more help for Puerto Rico, where they found ‘abject neglect’
NEW HAVEN — Connecticut’s two U.S. senators came to Fair Haven Friday to praise the community for helping residents of hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico and to criticize President Donald J. Trump’s administration for its response to the crisis.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both D-Conn., returned from the island several days ago, angered by the conditions they saw more than 100 days after Hurricane Maria scored a direct hit there.
Blumenthal said he was “furious and heartbroken to see Americans treated with such abysmal, abject neglect.”
He said almost half of the island’s residents are still without electricity or drinkable water. Many schools remain closed.
“We walked through a neighborhood in San Juan and it was completely dark,” he recalled. “There was no power, except for a couple of places. We wondered: ‘How are children doing homework? How are people cooking dinner?’”
“You can’t run an island on generators,” Blumenthal added. But he said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is relying on generators to restore power.
Blumenthal called the situation “a humanitarian crisis.”
“The economy is declining rapidly and tourism is sinking, 106 days since the hurricane,” Blumenthal reported. “They need support from the federal government, and that support has been abysmally inadequate.”
The senators spoke to a receptive audience of about 60 at the library of Fair Haven School. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp joined Murphy and Blumenthal at the long table.
“It’s shocking to me how the federal government allows residents to languish nearly four months after Hurricane Maria,” Harp said. “It’s an island that seemingly has been left adrift.”
New Haven Emergency Operations Director Rick Fontana said Harp has led an effective team of local citizens and 22 agencies to help people still in Puerto Rico as well as those leaving to come here. Fontana, who has also been a leader in this work, said, “We’ve collaborated to make a huge difference.”
Indeed, Blumenthal said he and Murphy were told repeatedly during their island tour that its residents appreciate the aid provided by the people of Connecticut.
“You really are making a difference,” he told the people in the library.
But Murphy reported seeing raw sewage flooding through neighborhoods because the water course remains “gummed-up with debris” such as fallen trees and there is no functioning sewage system. As a result of all the water damage, mold is pervasive in homes.
“It’s just unacceptable that this is happening in the United States of America,” Murphy said.
He said many more roof tarps are needed “so rain doesn’t fall on kids who are sleeping.”
As a result of the months of devastation and slow pace of repairs, Murphy said, people are leaving Puerto Rico in increasing numbers. “The exodus is getting bigger. People are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, the money’s not coming.’ It’s not panic. It’s a sense of despair. There’s a tipping point when you lose so much of your work force.”
Blumenthal called it “a tragedy for the island. They’re losing people with skills and talent and energy.”
The senators were introduced to two Puerto Ricans sitting nearby whose lives have been upended by the hurricane and its aftermath. Nina Marrero, and her husband, Vicente Bayron Laracuente, have been separated because they didn’t want her to have her baby under the grim conditions on the island. And so she came to New Haven while he remained in Puerto Rico, where he has a job. He is now visiting his wife and their baby before he goes back next week.
Through an interpreter, he said that in his town of Maricao, “We lost everything. The streets, the bridges are gone. There is no water, no electricity. People are coming down with diseases. They’re washing their clothes in the street and taking showers in the street. There is still very little food in the market.”
Murphy said he was impressed by the resiliency of the island’s people and added that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers are doing the best they can without sufficient backing from the federal government. “There are miracles happening every day in Puerto Rico. But the people can’t do it alone.”
Blumenthal noted some Democratic senators have announced a bill that would send billions of dollars to Puerto Rico to rebuild the island, just as the Marshall Plan helped Europe recover after World War II.
Murphy and Blumenthal are also trying to roll back a provision of the newly-enacted federal tax restructuring law so Puerto Rico’s manufacturers won’t be hit even harder as they reel from the hurricane’s economic effects. Blumenthal said the tax law unfairly “treats Puerto Rico like a foreign country, as if it were China.”
Trump in September approved a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, which was designed to make various type of grants, funding and loans available, according to the White House. The senators, however, lambasted Trump for his response to the hurricane. Blumenthal noted that when Trump visited Puerto Rico, “he was throwing rolls of towels. This has been a symbol of Washington’s failure at its worst. It’s the Trump administration at its worst. There is a need for leadership.”
Blumenthal added, “Donald Trump brags that ‘so few people died, only 17.’ The reality is that 1,060 people or more have died.”
The senators called for a bipartisan effort to bring meaningful aid to Puerto Rico. “We need some Republicans to really raise their voices in the next 30 days,” Murphy said.
During the question-and-answer session, a woman told the senators about the impact of the hurricane and the island exodus in New Haven. She said that at the Fair Haven Community Health Center there are more than 300 new patients, recent arrivals from Puerto Rico.
The senators closed the event by again praising the local residents’ activisim. Blumenthal told them, “Washington could use some lessons in leadership from New Haven.”