WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Senate Majority Leader Carmelo Rios and Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia, from Puerto Rico, along with Senator Janette Millin-Young, from the US Virgin Islands, are all members of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL), which represents the interests of over 400 Latino state legislators from both parties in state capitols across the country.
On September 29th, NHCSL wrote a letter to President Donald Trump asking for a more robust federal response to the disaster relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María. The letter was sent to the White House at 6:42PM that Friday, well after close of business. At exactly 7:37PM, just 55 minutes after the e-mail went out, NHCSL got a response from the White House's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
NHCSL's Executive Director Kenneth Romero had just stepped out of his office. Before he even had time to notice that there was a White House email sitting in his inbox, he received a call on his cellphone from DHS Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Barsa to schedule a meeting along with top-level officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), prior to President Trump's visit to Puerto Rico the following Tuesday.
The next day, Mr. Romero asked DHS if they would agree to bringing a select delegation of elected officials from Puerto Rico to DC, to make the meeting face-to-face and have the senators speak authoritatively on the disaster, with the most current facts on the ground and begin working with the Administration on specific policy recommendations. Once NHCSL got the green light, its staff quickly put together a high-level bipartisan delegation from Puerto Rico. Aware of the devastation in the USVI and knowing that one of their member senators from the Virgin Islands was in San Juan to advocate for more federal resources, NHCSL asked her to join the delegation.
After an ordeal to secure airline tickets for the delegation, on Saturday afternoon, NHCSL emailed schedulers of the Leadership and key Members of Congress to alert them that the delegation would be in Washington, but only for two days. After watching Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin state, on NBC's Meet the Press, that "the entire administration and the entire cabinet are very much focused on this… working with Secretary Perry on the electrical system," Mr. Romero quickly realized that, beyond immediate relief, Washington's focus was on target: energy and the electric grid are the key to the islands' long-term recovery. So, NHCSL immediately contacted the Secretary of Energy's office.
Reps. Nydia Velazquez (NY) and Luis Gutierrez (IL) had already expressed an interest to meet with the delegation, but NHCSL knew that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's involvement would be the real game changer. The next morning, at exactly 8:27AM, Senator McConnell's office reached out to Mr. Romero and informed him that, despite a very full schedule, the Majority Leader could meet with the Senators the next day at 11:00AM.
This is their story.
After days without taking a hot shower, the three Senators arrived on a late-night flight on Sunday. The next morning, they met with Barsa, along with FEMA's Deputy Director for Intergovernmental Affairs, Robert Nadeau, and its Assistant Administrator for Recovery, Alex Amparo.
Romero told federal officials that "Lt. General Jeffrey Buchanan, who's in charge of the federal response in Puerto Rico, described the devastation as the worst he's ever seen. Our message to the federal government is that the worst disaster, requires the best response with the most resources." Before concluding the meeting, Barsa promised to meet with Senators Rios and Bhatia again in Puerto Rico, immediately upon his arrival to the Island this week. During the meeting, FEMA agreed to extend its claims deadline so that it would not be an issue for victims who cannot access the Internet to file their claims.
Later that day, they were joined by NHCSL President and Pennsylvania State Representative Ángel Cruz, who led the delegation to meet with Congresswoman Velazquez to discuss their four-point plan. "In addition to resources for immediate relief, and on behalf of the 3.5 million American citizens that live in the Islands, we are requesting full funding for reconstruction, parity in Medicaid funding and all federal health care programs for Puerto Rico, and an extension of the 10-day waiver of the Jones Act for at least a year, to facilitate shipping vital goods to Puerto Rico," said Cruz as requested in NHCSL's letter to the President. The letter also makes the point that any supplemental spending measure for the recovery effort in the USVI and Puerto Rico needs to include economic development measures for the islands, as the only path to a true recovery.
The next morning, Senator McConnell hosted the delegation in his office. "The key point we conveyed to Senator McConnell is that Congress needs to enact a new Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico. This was not a run of the mill hurricane that requires an average federal response. María's damage in Puerto Rico and the USVI is only comparable to that of a war zone and needs to be addressed as such. Our delegation brought the perspective from the ground and told them the real necessities our constituents have. I shared with him the situation facing a community in Toa Baja, a city in my district, that lost 290 out of 325 homes. We told him of the need for flexibility in the use of federal funds so that our government does not run out of money and essential services can be met," said Senator Ríos.
Romero added that "Senator McConnell expressed his personal connection to both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and how important they are to him and to all Americans." He described the meeting as 'hopeful' and stated that Senator McConnell welcomed the delegation "in a manner that only the Senate Majority Leader can pull off, accompanied by three of his key advisers and with no sense of time constraint, even though we knew there was one".
Once the meeting ended, the delegation rushed to Senator Schumer's office and met with senior staffers, while they reworked his entire schedule so that the Democratic Leader could meet with the delegation three hours later. Senator Millin Young (USVI), who lost the roof of her home and all her belongings in the storm, said "the American citizens of the US Virgin Islands need a robust federal assistance package from Congress to ensure that our fragile infrastructure is restored and that our people can get the emergency relief assistance they need in the short-term. We had a very productive meeting with Senator Schumer. He heard from us that the conditions on the ground in our islands is desperate and the need for rescue and relief efforts is urgent. Through NHCSL we will continue to follow up so that hand in hand, Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders can continue to advocate for the recovery efforts to be conducted in the most thorough and thoughtful way possible."
From the US Capitol, the delegation sped to the US Department of Energy. They were not able to meet with Secretary Perry, who was in Puerto Rico that day accompanying President Trump. There they held productive conversations with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy Douglas Little and several DOE senior officials. Senator Bhatia, who has spent years focusing on the islands' energy issues, was encouraged by the meeting. "My colleagues and I conveyed our desire to partner with our federal counterparts so that the relief efforts can help the most vulnerable and worst affected citizens in our jurisdictions. I especially stressed the need for a new energy grid in Puerto Rico. We cannot merely patch up the old and outdated grid. We must have a modern grid with a renewable energy portfolio that is up to 21st Century standards. General Buchanan himself said that there are 'some parts that we're going to have to start from scratch.' Obviously, the electric grid is at the top of that list," he said.
At Senator Bhatia's behest, DOE officials agreed that infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the USVI should be rebuilt with state-of-the-art technology, with the priorities being robustness and price, particularly an emphasis on solar energy and microgrids. Regarding the short-term relief phase, DOE expects to make good progress clearing the debris that is interrupting energy distribution by the end of this week. In addition, Assistant Secretary Little committed to offering greater detail and a preliminary plan on all fronts within the week, after he and his staff brief Secretary Perry.
From DOE, they quickly returned to the US Capitol to meet with Senate Assistant Democratic Leader, Dick Durbin, his Chief of Staff, Patrick Souders, and several key staffers. Senator Ríos seized the opportunity to convey that "Puerto Ricans from all over the US mainland and the Island are united in one voice: our government, the federal government, needs to do a better job of addressing the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. These are US citizens and it is unacceptable that two weeks after Hurricane María, 95% of Puerto Rico is still without power, 88% of cell sites are down, and 55% of Island residents don't have drinking water. In the USVI, most of the 55,000 US Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) customers also do not have electricity and two of the three health care facilities there were destroyed."
The next morning, just before boarding a plane back to Puerto Rico, the delegation met with senior staff from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's Office, led by her Chief of Staff, Robert Edmonson, to make sure that both houses were on the same page regarding the required Plan for relief and recovery. Mr. Edmonson underscored Leader Pelosi's commitment to robust relief and recovery and stressed the need to continue working together with NHCSL and the senators in the upcoming weeks and months.
"At NHCSL, we are proud that, in addition to advocating for important Hispanic issues such as immigration reform, Latina entrepreneurship, apprenticeships and college graduation rates, we could put together this delegation from Puerto Rico and the USVI at this critical time. It is also our responsibility to advocate on their behalf before federal officials and in the media," concluded NHCSL Executive Director Romero.
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SOURCE National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL)