Washington, D.C. – Led by United States Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), 39 Members of Congress wrote the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ahead of the upcoming hurricane season in the Caribbean, seeking answers to how FEMA is preparing to respond to a storm that hits Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands amidst the numerous other ongoing disasters and recovery efforts.
The lawmakers wrote in the letter: “While we deeply hope that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are left untouched this hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on May 21 that there is a 60 percent chance the 2020 hurricane season is above average. FEMA must be prepared for the worst. Not only are the islands still rebuilding from the devastating 2017 hurricane season, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the islands’ people, electrical grid, and infrastructure, Puerto Rico has also been hit by thousands of earthquakes and aftershocks – the most devastating of which was a 6.4-magnitude quake.”
In addition to Schumer and Velázquez, the letter is signed by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Representatives Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jesus G. “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL), Darren Soto (D-FL), Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Albio Sires (D-NJ), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Karen Bass (D- CA), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Gwen Moore (D-WI), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Kathy Castor (D-FL), Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Thomas R. Suozzi (D-NY), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Grace Meng (D-NY), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Norma Torres (D-CA), James P. McGovern (D-MA), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Harley Rouda (D-CA).
You may find the letter here and below:
May 27, 2020
The Honorable Pete T. Gaynor
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20472
Dear Administrator Gaynor:
We write, ahead of the upcoming hurricane season in the Caribbean, seeking answers to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is preparing to respond to a storm that hits Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands amidst the numerous other ongoing disasters and recovery efforts. FEMA must be prepared for the worst, but there is still no public plan to address these compounding disasters.
While we deeply hope that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are left untouched this hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on May 21 that there is a 60 percent chance the 2020 hurricane season is above average. FEMA must be prepared for the worst. Not only are the islands still rebuilding from the devastating 2017 hurricane season, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the islands’ people, electrical grid, and infrastructure, Puerto Rico has also been hit by thousands of earthquakes and aftershocks – the most devastating of which was a 6.4-magnitude quake that claimed the life of a 73-year-old man in Ponce. To complicate matters further, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak has been spreading in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for months and could further complicate FEMA’s response measures. FEMA must have a comprehensive plan in place to address these compounding factors and ensure that our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are safe.
Unfortunately, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are no better prepared to confront another hurricane than they were before Hurricanes Maria and Irma. In fact, they are in a more vulnerable position. The power, water, and healthcare infrastructures on the islands are very fragile. For example, as a result of the January earthquakes, the power generation plant Costa Sur suffered structural damage that has caused a reduction of approximately 20% of available power supply for the whole island of Puerto Rico. Water availability on the islands is also in peril. Critically needed dredging of the Carraizo and La Plata reservoirs has yet to take place. According to Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), three years after Hurricane Maria, FEMA has not disbursed the 600 million dollars that are needed for the dredging to occur. Without the dredging the water reservoir capabilities are considerably diminished. Lastly, and as a result of the recent disasters, hospitals on the islands have also suffered significant structural damages. Specifically, in Puerto Rico, one hospital in the town of Yauco had to close, and hospitals in the municipality of Ponce have had to shut down entire floors. In the Virgin Islands, hurricane destruction to the roof of the hospital on St. Croix allowed water to infiltrate the facility, severely damaging check-in areas, hospital rooms, and medical equipment, and forcing the hospital to shut down the entire top floor. The school in Frederiksted sustained severe hurricane damage, including a collapsed roof, which condemned the entire facility. Hurricane force winds completely destroyed many apartments in the largest public housing facility on St. Thomas. These damages remain. Due in part to persistent delays in closing out the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Program, FEMA still lingers mostly in the emergency work phase of the recovery. In the context of COVID-19, as with other jurisdictions across the country, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have not been able to test their populations adequately. Scientific experts believe that during the coming weeks, Puerto Rico will start facing a shortage of reagents needed for PCR tests. The fragile stage of critical infrastructure on the islands is a recipe for a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions to occur if the islands are hit with another hurricane in the coming months.
Therefore, we have the following questions for you and your staff, please provide us with a response by June 8, 2020:
i. What portion of island residents and/or entities eligible for FEMA Public Assistance have internet connectivity sufficient to apply for assistance remotely?
ii. What specific actions has FEMA taken to ensure residents of Puerto Rico and the USVI may access disaster assistance while respecting CDC social distancing guidelines?
a. In part due to its experience in the islands following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, FEMA has decided not to use the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Program during future disaster recovery efforts. How does FEMA plan to address emergency sheltering needs in the event of future major disasters in communities that face challenges and circumstances like those in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after Hurricanes Maria and Irma?
b. How much funding is currently pending for the STEP program in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and what is the status of the Project Worksheets related to the STEP program in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands?
i. Cost-estimate or project development phase
ii. Obligated and under construction
We appreciate your swift attention and consideration of this request and stand ready to work with FEMA to deliver support and resources to the impacted communities.