U.S. Rep. Darren Soto spent the early part of the week touring Puerto Rico and then on Thursday met with the House Natural Resources Committee, leaving convinced that the island is in desperate straights and that the administration of President Donald Trump still has not come to terms, but that Congress has.
In an interview with Orlando-Rising.com Friday, Soto said many parts in the island still have not seen any federal officials, let alone airdrops of food, water and supplies. And he expects it to be many months before the society is even minimally functional again in many parts of the island outside of San Juan.
“We’ve had much better success in getting Congress to understand the devastation than we have in getting the Trump administration to do so,” Soto said.
The Natural Resources Committee oversees American territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Soto, an Orlando Democrat who is of Puerto Rican descent, is a member, as well as a member of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, which more specifically oversees the territories.
He said he met with the committee informally, and everyone recognized that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were in dire condition.
“That’s the good news in all this,” Soto said, noting that he expects Congress to pass an emergency $29 billion FEMA package for hurricane relief to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with Puerto Rico getting $10 billion of that.
“Keep in mind it took over 90 days for the tristate area [New Jersey, New York, Connecticut] to get their FEMA relief from Hurricane Sandy, and it took more than that for Louisiana to get relief from Hurricane Katrina. So the fact that we’re getting this hurricane relief package out in an expedited manner is the positive news in all of this,” he said.
But, he said, the news reports and social media stories about relief aid not getting out of the ports and into the more remote portions of the island are true. Those areas he visited had no electricity, water in the streets, and people lining up before dawn to get what little food was available.
Soto also called attention to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which he did not visit, but about which, he said, he has been briefed on numerous times. Soto said the Virgin Islands were in as bad shape, with no schools or hospitals standing, and, he said, the additional burden of a local government that was not responding well.
“One of the big things we [on the Natural Resources Committee] all agreed to do is we need to stand united for both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on this, because we’re worried that the Virgin Islands will be left out. But everything needs to be rebuilt,” Soto said.
But he said he remains convinced that the Trump administration does not understand the “damage or the heightened sense of the urgency of the need.”
Airdrops must be massively increased, for starters, he said. That, he said, has been a demand through multiple sources.
“I believe there just hasn’t been the leadership from the top, to urge that to happen. We have a three-star general there, [Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey] Buchanan, but he can only work with the assets he’s given, and he still takes orders from the president,” Soto said.
“If President Trump said today, ‘Bring down 500 helicopters and get them out to all these towns immediately,’ it will happen,” Soto added. “But to the best of my knowledge, unless something has changed over the last day or so, it still hasn’t.”
He said Congress can, and he expects will, put pressure on the president to do more, through letters, committee hearings “and potentially policy over the next few weeks, to force the administration’s hand.”