Returning from a visit to view the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said Thursday that the “island is still in crisis” more than 100 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
Lingering power outages and a lack of drinking water are compounded by what Murphy, D-Connecticut, described as a lack of urgency from President Donald Trump’s administration. He also said a response of the same magnitude would draw outrage if it occurred anywhere else in the U.S.
“If this were happening in the Continental United States, if we were in Connecticut 100 days after a hurricane and half the state didn’t have power, there would be riots in the street,” he said in an interview. “It would be unacceptable if this were happening in any of the 50 states — these are Americans.”
Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, returned Wednesday from a two-day trip to Puerto Rico to witness the recovery effort in person.
The two senators met with Gov. Ricardo Rossello and officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, toured sections of San Juan and Bayamon — the island’s two most populous cities — and visited the University of Puerto Rico’s hospital, or Hospital UPR.
It’s estimated that half of the island remains without electricity, and Murphy said many parts also still don’t have access to drinking water. He said the rural areas have the biggest problems, but many sections of major cities are also still in great need.
“It’s not as if life is back to normal in the cities, and it’s a crisis in the rural areas,” he said.
Murphy also expressed concern that the death toll could continue to rise. Although the initial death toll was around 64, estimates have recently skyrocketed to over 1,000.
Murphy fears the final impact could be deaths “in the multiple thousands,” although it can be hard to get a firm figure because some deaths seemingly related to the slow recovery aren’t considered a direct result of the disaster.
One concern is residents with serious health issues being released from the hospital, only to return to homes without electricity for necessary equipment, like respirators, or to store medicine.
Murphy expressed concern that the influx of Puerto Rican evacuees into the U.S. — Meriden schools estimate roughly 150 new students already this year — could grow significantly as more residents give up hope of a recovery.
“The reason the exodus is increasing is that people now just don’t believe the recovery is going to happen,” he said. “They actually don’t think that Washington is committed to rebuilding the island.”
He said “almost none” of the aid Puerto Rico was supposed to receive has been delivered as part of a $36.5 billion October package that also allocated relief for Florida and Texas as those states recover from storms as well.
J.R. Romano, chairman of the state Republican party, criticized Murphy for not offering more specifics on how to fix the problem, saying Murphy “wants to complain about anything and everything.” He also said that questions about the pace of recovery should go to Puerto Rican officials, not the Trump administration.
He said that disaster recovery efforts typically start with state and local officials, noting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy leads Connecticut’s efforts to respond to severe storms and other disasters.
“I understand the need to help American citizens, as we do in any state, but we rely on local authorities to execute plans,” he said.
Romano also questioned why Puerto Rican officials received late-year bonuses despite the expensive recovery.
Murphy said he does expect some relief soon for states like Connecticut that seen a large migration of Puerto Rican residents. He expects Congress to take up a larger relief bill that could provide aid to states taking in evacuees.
He also said Congress could make policy changes to help those who are taking in evacuees, such as altering current rules dictating that unemployment compensation paid to Puerto Ricans would count toward the household income of families that take them in.