Legislators take 'sobering' flight to see hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, promise more help

Tim Johnson, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Weather News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A bipartisan group of legislators flew over the devastated interior of Puerto Rico Saturday and returned to the island's capital voicing astonishment at the level of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.

"The scope of the devastation was really sobering," said Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., whose district has a significant Puerto Rican population.

The legislators voiced broad support for a robust relief package, saying that Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, should be treated like the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was told by the head of Puerto Rico's National Guard that the Pentagon would soon boost its post-hurricane deployment to 17,000 military personnel. It is now about 12,000 troops.

"That's a tremendous ramp up," Blumenthal said, adding that his "heart broke" on seeing the island's devastation.

"We have a moral obligation as Americans, and my fear very simply is that America will fail Puerto Rico," Blumenthal said.

But Republican and Democratic legislators in the delegation said they would try to ensure that doesn't happen, starting with emergency help to get the island's power grid back into shape. About 90 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power after the Sept. 20 hurricane.

"We are fully aware of your plight, your suffering," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Pa, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee. "You will not be forgotten."

Johnson and a fellow Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, said their first priority would be to restore power to the island of 3.4 million U.S. citizens.

"If you're a utility CEO and you're listening to this right now, I hope you will contact the Puerto Rico power authority," Gardner said. "Come into Puerto Rico. Contact them. Let's make sure we get this grid built."

Earlier in the day, the chief of staff to Gov. Ricardo Rossello, William Villafane, said he believes as many as 100,000 people lost their wooden homes in Puerto Rico's interior.

"I have never seen anything of the magnitude of this," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said after the flyover the 10 legislators made.

Kaine said the storm knocked down two pillars of the island's economy, agriculture and tourism, and that Congress cannot deal with the disaster "on the nickel and dime."

"Look at what we did after Katrina at $100 billion in relief. Look at what we did after Sandy at $50 (billion) to $80 billion in relief," Kaine said. "It's not about throwing a dollar here and there."

A Hurricane Maria relief proposal winding through Congress totals $29 billion but most of that money would be for a national flood insurance program and to help fight wildfires in the West, leaving $12.5 billion for Hurricane Maria relief, Kaine said.

He said he was heartened that federal officials told the delegation that the allotment, if approved by Congress, would pay for "an assessment of what the real needs are."

There will be a battle over relief in Congress, Blumenthal said.

"We're going to have a fight. There's no question," he said. "I went through this fight to get relief on Sandy and Sandy was in the Northeast, just a train ride from Washington, D.C."

Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would lead a second congressional delegation to Puerto Rico in the coming week.

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