MURPHY, COLLEAGUES RENEW CALL FOR HELP COMMITTEE HEARINGS ON HURRICANES’ IMPACT ON PUERTO RICO & U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

Washington U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), along with seven of his colleagues on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sent a letter led by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to reiterate a request that the Committee hold hearings to assess the challenges faced by the health and educational systems of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Joining Murphy and Warren in sending the letter were U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.).

In their letter to Chairman Alexander, the senators pointed out that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to face serious challenges in their health and educational systems, and echoed a bipartisan December 2017 call for the committee to hold hearings. The HELP Committee has not held any hearings on the islands’ recovery since the hurricanes made landfall in September 2017.

“We have a responsibility to exercise our oversight responsibilities to ensure that our fellow U.S. citizens struggling with the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria—the deadliest natural disaster in recent U.S. history—receive the resources and assistance they need to recover from these disasters and to rebuild in a long-term, sustainable way,” the senators wrote. “We must find out what went wrong in the preparation for and recovery from this disaster, and make sure that federal and state agencies are better prepared for the next natural disaster.”

Last month, the government of Puerto Rico revised its death toll to 2,975 lives lost from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. For months, the official death toll had been listed as 64 fatalities, despite numerous reports and studies indicating that the number of deaths caused by the storm was far higher.  The update to the official death toll figures reflects the results of a government-commissioned study by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, which found that Hurricane Maria was, in fact, the deadliest natural disaster in modern U.S. history.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the senators noted, the Governor recently extended the territory’s ongoing state of emergency, while Puerto Rico is currently facing an exodus of doctors, an acute mental health crisis, and struggling elementary, secondary, and higher education systems.

In March 2018, 6 months after the Hurricane, Murphy called on Senate leaders to work with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Roselló to formulate and pass an emergency bill to rebuild Puerto Rico and restore stability to the island. Murphy has held several meetings with the Puerto Rican community in Connecticut to receive feedback on federal relief efforts. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murphy helped secure $2.7 billion for school systems to recover from 2017 natural disasters and for school districts in Connecticut to accommodate displaced students. He also urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend Transitional Shelter Assistance for families in Connecticut displaced from their homes in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

In January 2018, 186 organizations sent a letter to Chairman Alexander and HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), echoing the bipartisan December 2017 call for the committee to hold hearings on the matter.

A copy of the letter is available here and included below:

 

Dear Chairman Alexander,

We write to again request that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) hold hearings to assess the challenges facing the health and educational systems of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

On December 21, 2017, three months after Hurricane Maria, a bipartisan group of nine HELP Committee members wrote you to ask for hearings on these issues. A month later, 186 organizations sent you a letter echoing this request. But the Committee has not convened a hearing on these issues, and there appear to be no plans for the Committee to do so. The first anniversary of the September hurricanes that upended the lives of millions of U.S. citizens has now passed without the Committee holding a single hearing on any aspect of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands' recovery.

Since we sent our initial request for hearings in December 2017, a number of developments have only underscored the need for the HELP Committee to conduct oversight of pressing issues confronting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On August 28, 2018, the Puerto Rico government revised its death toll to 2,975 lives lost from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. For months, the official death toll had been listed as 64 fatalities, despite numerous reports and studies indicating that it was far higher. The update to the official death toll figures reflect the results of a government-commissioned study by researchers at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, which found that Hurricane Maria was in fact the deadliest natural disaster in recent U.S. history. Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to face critical challenges in their health and educational systems. U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp recently extended the territory's ongoing state of emergency. The Virgin Islands' health care system has still not recovered from Hurricanes Irma and Maria; for example, Schneider Regional Medical Center the sole hospital on St. Thomas-has not yet been fully repaired and its cancer institute is still inoperative. About one-third of the U.S. Virgin Islands' schools weren't ready to open on time to begin the academic year.

The health care system in Puerto Rico also faces substantial challenges. Even before Hurricane Maria, there was an exodus of doctors from the island -a trend that's believed to have accelerated.  By many accounts, Puerto Rico is in the midst of a mental health crisis because so many residents were traumatized by the catastrophe. And the island is poised to make major cuts to Medicaid spending, reaching almost $840 million less per year by 2023.

This summer, Puerto Rico closed down more than 250 schools. As the academic year begins, some schools' physical plants are still in poor shape, teachers remain unassigned, and many students have been forced into new schools. Puerto Rico's institutions of higher education were also hit hard by Hurricane Maria, and burdensome bureaucratic hurdles have reportedly made it difficult for colleges and universities to receive disaster aid.

These examples represent a small sample of the pressing issues within the jurisdiction of the HELP Committee that are affecting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have a responsibility to exercise our oversight responsibilities to ensure that our fellow U.S. citizens struggling with the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria- the deadliest natural disaster in recent U.S. history- receive the resources and assistance they need to recover from these disasters and to rebuild in a long-term, sustainable way. We must find out what went wrong in the preparation for and recovery from this disaster, and make sure that federal and state agencies are better prepared for the next natural disaster.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

 

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