WASHINGTON — With Hurricane Maria’s devastation coming into full view, a group of congressional lawmakers called on the Trump administration Tuesday to step up its response to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
Several legislators of Puerto Rican descent, Democratic leaders and lawmakers with sizable Puerto Rican populations in their districts gathered in the office of Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., to discuss the federal government's response, which Velázquez called "totally inefficient."
“This is evolving into a humanitarian crisis," she said. "We need the full force of the federal government in Puerto Rico."
She said the lawmakers are asking for a meeting with President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters he plans to visit the island next Tuesday. “Puerto Rico is very important to me and the people are fantastic people. I grew up in New York so I know many people from Puerto Rico,” he said.
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The remarks follow his tweets the night before. Overnight Trump tweeted that Texas and Florida were “doing great” after recent hurricanes, but Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble.”
He went on to describe the infrastructure troubles Puerto Rico was suffering before Hurricane Maria struck, and said, “Much of the island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks, which, sadly must be dealt with."
He continued that food and supplies are priority and are “doing great.”
There already had been complaints on social media before the congressional meeting on Tuesday that Trump was tweeting about the NFL and protests during the national anthem but saying little about the crisis in Puerto Rico. When he did finally tweet about it, he drew backlash for mentioning Puerto Rico’s debt to banks and Wall Street.
Asked about the tweets, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., said Trump should not go to a scheduled fundraiser. "How do you go to a fundraiser when there's people's suffering?" he said.
Congressional members returned from recess with Maria’s upheaval added to an agenda that already is crowded with another Republican attempt to repeal health care, response to Trump’s decision to end DACA and more.
But Democratic leaders emphasized Puerto Rico was a priority. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic minority whip, attended the meeting along with the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.
“There is overwhelming damage, and the response is not as vigorous as I would have liked,” Hoyer said before the meeting. Later, at a briefing with reporters, Hoyer said that the Department of Defense should start getting resources and aid to the island quickly, and said "quick enough" would be "today, tomorrow and this week."
He also said that aid to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands should include a Department of Defense hospital ship. Later Tuesday, U.S. defense officials said the hospital ship USS Comfort is making preparations to head to Puerto Rico and the ship should arrive in about 9-10 days. Hillary Clinton had tweeted Sunday that the ship should be sent.
On Monday, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the damage "devastating," and said Congress was working with the administration to get resources to the U.S. territory.
Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., also at the meeting, told NBC News on Monday that those who want to see Puerto Rico receive robust assistance from the federal government “have to make sure we push the appropriations committee to begin working on the next aid package,” as soon as Tuesday morning. Serrano is a member of the Appropriations Committee, which controls the House’s purse strings.
Serrano said he had a conversation Friday night with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., in which they agreed that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands needed to be treated as equal to states recovering from hurricanes.
“If that holds, that’s important because it would put the territories on par with states in terms of money allocated,” Serrano said. “It wouldn’t be the usual where whatever is leftover goes to the territory. It is an afterthought in many cases on many federal programs.”
Crowley said the damage from the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean “is beyond anyone’s comprehension” and what is needed is “mobilization of our nation to help the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — the need to be treated identically as states, not as castoffs.”
“There are people who are suffering. There is no food. There is no water. There are concerns about law and order. There’s not fuel. The electric grid is entirely wiped out. There is no fuel for surgical purposes or for emergency medical treatment, and there is concern about the elderly and the young,” he said.
Crowley said the government needs to get the military in Puerto Rico for humanitarian aid.
Maria made landfall a week ago Wednesday, wiping out all communication and shutting off power to almost all of the island. Families on the mainland have been unable to reach loved ones because phone and power lines are down. While there have been some points of recovery, much of it has happened in the capital, San Juan, and conditions in many areas outside the city are still unknown, or they are without food, potable water or electricity.
The storm followed a sideswipe from Hurricane Irma.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., said he is working with others in the state's delegation to arrange a military flight to Puerto Rico and was offering Gutiérrez a spot on the flight.
"The response needs to be overwhelming, and right now it's not there," Soto said. "FEMA's there but we need a large military response like we respond to any humanitarian crisis."
Gutiérrez said he’s been trying to get to the island but his flights keep getting canceled, and if he can’t go with Soto’s flight, he’ll get there Friday “by hook or crook.”
He said he feels a sense of urgency. “We just aren’t doing enough," he said.
He said the electrical grid and water supply system didn’t work before the hurricane, "and now there is none."
"This is going to take a lot,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made it to the island and was meeting Wednesday with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss what he saw.
"Every day that goes by the situation gets more critical. The situation in San Juan is bad. The situation outside of San Juan is catastrophic," Rubio said in a Facebook Live posting.
He said the legislation Congress passed to deal with Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis — it owes some $70 billion in debt it can’t pay — makes clear that the U.S. government “owns the island of Puerto Rico and governs” it. When the legislation was working its way to passage, lawmakers reassured U.S. taxpayers that restoring Puerto Rico to fiscal health would not cost the U.S. a cent, Gutierrez recalled.
“People are going to die,” he said, “and we cannot keep thinking of Puerto Rico as the place that doesn’t cost us a cent.”