Democrats renew push to investigate Trump's Hurricane Maria response in Puerto Rico

“It is clear now...that thousands needlessly lost their lives because of the federal government’s feeble response to these hurricanes and their aftermath."
Image: Houses damaged by Hurricane Maria in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 23, 2017.
Houses damaged by Hurricane Maria in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 23, 2017.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Nicole Acevedo

As the new Congress starts the year, Democrats are picking up an unresolved fight: investigating the Trump administration's response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand , D-N.Y., announced on Monday that she's reintroducing a bill to establish a “9/11-style” independent commission "to investigate exactly how and why the federal government abandoned its responsibilities and turned its back on Puerto Rico."

“We need to get to the bottom of exactly what went so terribly wrong," said Gillibrand in a statement. "I am proud to fight for Puerto Rico in the Senate, and I urge my colleagues to support this legislation just as they would if a natural disaster hit their own states.”

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The legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Edward Markey, D-Mass., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would analyze how a questionable methodology to account for hurricane deaths, a lack of disaster preparedness, and an inadequate telecommunications systems, among other missteps, hurt Puerto Rico's emergency response.

Lawmakers said that by knowing the answers to these questions, they could find ways to improve the federal government's capacity to effectively mobilize to the island and help in post-hurricane relief efforts in the wake of another disaster.

“It’s been well over a year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and we still don’t know why the federal government’s preparedness and response were so flawed,” said Warren, who established an exploratory committee to consider a 2020 White House bid. “The Commission established by our bill would give us a full accounting of what happened and help provide the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, in Massachusetts, and across the country with the answers they deserve.”

Hispanic members of Congress were the first ones to call for the creation of such commission to investigate how hurricane-related deaths were accounted for in Puerto Rico and whether the delay reporting these fatalities in the immediate aftermath of the storm slowed Washington's response.

Reps. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., and Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., initially introduced a bill in the House back in June. It called for the creation of a bipartisan commission of eight members appointed by Congress to look into the federal government’s preparedness and response. Gillibrand and Warren did so too, in the Senate.

“As we move into the 116th Congress, I will continue calling for accountability for how Donald Trump and his administration failed 3.4 million American citizens after Maria struck,” said Velázquez. “It is clear now, from multiple analyses, that thousands needlessly lost their lives because of the federal government’s feeble response to these hurricanes and their aftermath."

In a statement, Velázquez also promised that multiple hearings will take place to look "into many facets of what went wrong" and "be certain this never happens again.”

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