Trump praises hurricane response amid demands for Maria death toll investigation
President Donald Trump praised his administration’s response to last year’s devastating storms even as thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees face eviction from temporary shelters and the island remains partly without power nine months after Hurricane Maria.
Meeting with his Cabinet and disaster agency officials on Wednesday for a briefing on hurricane season, which began June 1, Trump said his administration “leapt into action to coordinate the response” to last year’s storms.
“We’ve had three devastating major hurricanes,” Trump said. “America has never experienced so many large-scale disasters in such a short period of time.”
As he spoke, Puerto Ricans displaced by Maria marched on Capitol Hill demanding housing aid and Democratic lawmakers, led by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called for an investigation of the response and the death toll from Maria.
“Will Congress yet again do nothing? Will President Trump yet again do nothing?” Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “If, God forbid, another hurricane hits that island they will have blood on their hands.”
FEMA’s temporary housing program, which pays for hotels and other transitional lodging after a disaster, will expire June 30, forcing thousands of families on the mainland to leave the hotels and motels they’ve sheltered in. FEMA has offered to help cover the cost of their airfare back to the island through July 1.
The agency has spent $1.3 billion on Puerto Rico housing aid so far and is vigorously preparing for this year’s storm season. More than 600 generators remain on the island and warehouses are being stocked with supplies, including food and tarps.
Trump gave himself a perfect score last fall for his administration’s response to last year’s storms. But as 2018 hurricane gets under way, Puerto Rico’s readiness and the government’s accounting for last year’s storm remain open questions.
Power has yet to be restored to the entire island nine months after Maria knocked out the island’s electrical grid. Thousands of Puerto Ricans, both evacuees and those who stayed, are living in hotels or other temporary shelter.
More than 5,500 people continue to be housed under the transitional shelter program, occupying 2,123 hotel rooms in 28 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to FEMA data.
Some evacuees are winding up on the streets. In Connecticut alone, hundreds of displaced Puerto Ricans have entered homeless shelters, said Diane Yentel, president of the non-profit National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“We’ve already heard from legal aid attorneys in Connecticut that there are about 350 Puerto Rico evacuees now in homeless shelters because they’ve been turned away from FEMA’s hotel program,” Yentel said.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded $18.5 billion in grant funding to Puerto Rico, some of it aimed at repairing homes. But it’s not clear where families who lost their homes may end up.
Yentel also faulted the administration’s response to new estimates of the storm’s death toll, which Harvard University recently estimated at nearly 5,000, far higher than the official government estimate of 64. Many died because power and clean water were unavailable for weeks or months, researchers found.
“It has been a shameful response and a shameful silence from the administration on the deaths of so many Americans due to seeming incompetence and a failure to respond,” Yentel said.
Last month, FEMA denied Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s request to access an aid program administered by HUD. The Disaster Housing Assistance Program, established under President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina, provides long-term rental housing for needy disaster survivors, who are required to contribute to their rent in greater sums over time.
FEMA called the program costly and inefficient, citing a 2011 inspector general report. Instead, the agency will help families find rental units and make payments directly to property owners. That assistance, known as Direct Lease, will be available only to people on the island, according to a FEMA spokeswoman. The program allows FEMA to reach lease deals with property owners in areas where housing is in short supply.
“Less than one percent of evacuees in the continental U.S. would be eligible due to the number of rental units available,” FEMA spokeswoman Patricia Lea Crager said. Other survivors are eligible for grant money to help with rent regardless of location.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have said they want to do more to prepare Puerto Rico for the next hurricane. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House committee that oversees Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, told POLITICO on Tuesday that he plans to hold a hearing on ways to improve the commonwealth’s electrical grid.
Congressional Democrats are also pushing for a commission similar to the one that was created to study failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks to study the administration’s response to Maria. So far no Republicans have committed to cooperate on legislation to create that commission, though the Government Accountability Office, a government watchdog agency, has agreed to study the death toll.
“In Donald Trump’s mind it was not a real catastrophe because the number that was told to him on the day he visited Puerto Rico was only 16,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.).
For full text, click here.