Op-Ed: Congress Hasn’t Forgotten About the Islands
We recently led a bipartisan congressional delegation to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys to survey the damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria and to bear witness to the suffering of families and communities still without the basic necessities of power, water, fuel and access to health care. Only once we had arrived could we fathom the full scale of destruction wrought by the storms — and understand that smart rebuilding will require not only significant federal funding but also key changes in federal law to help protect these vulnerable areas from future damage.
Our bipartisan group was fortunate to be joined in St. Croix by U.S. Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett (D), who took us to a condemned school and a hospital that experienced severe damage and was limited in its ability to care for patients. As we drove from the school to the hospital, we passed home after home that had been completely destroyed and others with piles of clothes, furniture and other water-damaged belongings heaped in front. Virgin Islanders are doing everything they can to rebuild their lives, but they are counting on Congress to ensure that they have the resources necessary to do so.
In Puerto Rico, 3.4 million Americans continue to live in a state of frenzied recovery. We joined Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R) in Utuado, a municipality in the mountainous interior of the island. Ours was the first bipartisan, multi-member congressional delegation to visit the interior, and on the way we saw how lack of access to clean drinking water continues to be an issue. Cars lined the road where people had stopped to collect untreated stream water from a PVC pipe. As we walked through a barrio in Utuado, electrical lines hung low and debris was piled along nearly every road. Many residents spoke of how landslides devastated their property. They still had no access to electricity. Food and medicine were scarce, hope for a swift recovery even scarcer.
We had departed Washington as Democratic and Republican members on a mission to see for ourselves the devastation caused by the hurricanes. We returned as fellow Americans imbued with a shared sense that Congress must work together to do more to help the people we met — and uplifted by their extraordinary resilience in the face of hardship.
One way we can provide this help is by changing the law to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to rebuild damaged infrastructure — including buildings, roads, bridges and the power grid — not merely to the vulnerable state they were in before but to modern, 21st-century standards that can withstand future storms.
Amending the law will ensure that we can better prepare communities for future risk and use taxpayer dollars as wisely as possible. It makes little sense to require, as under current law, that buildings and infrastructure be rebuilt in the ways that made them so vulnerable to Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Instead, we ought to work across the aisle to give these communities the chance to come back stronger. Making those investments now will save taxpayer dollars in the long run. Both of us are committed to advancing this issue and working to bring our colleagues on board in this effort.
Furthermore, we are determined to ensure there is strong bipartisan support for the next supplemental emergency funding package so that affected areas such as those we visited have the resources they need.
As part of our visit to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys, we distributed aid to struggling families. Perhaps, though, the most important resource we brought with us was the reassurance to all those affected by these storms that their fellow Americans on the mainland have not forgotten them — and that we will not leave them vulnerable to the next storm.
Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, is majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, is House minority whip.