WASHINGTON – Puerto Rico needs a new “Marshall plan” — a massive U.S. effort to help Europe rebuild after World War II — to recover from the massive devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Thursday.
Warren and two other senators advocated for increased aid to the island, which is still facing widespread power outages nearly five months after the hurricane hit. Hundreds of thousands of residents are still without electricity, and Warren and her colleagues said the federal government has not done enough to help.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Warren have proposed a bill calling for $146 billion in reconstruction aid for education and infrastructure repairs for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Puerto Rico has no [legislative] representation in the United States, all of us together must be that representation,” Sanders said. “We say: ‘You are not alone, we will stand with you.’”
Sanders, Warren and a third bill co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spoke at an event co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers and the Hispanic Federation.
“Puerto Rico needs help to rebuild and have a strong recovery,” Warren said. “No single measure will be enough … we need a sustained commitment to the island.”
Warren said she is prepared to hold Congress and the Trump administration accountable “until we achieve exactly that.”
President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria has been widely criticized. When Trump visited the island in October, he said Maria paled in comparison to “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, and that officials should be “proud” of the low death toll. On Twitter, he said he couldn’t provide relief through FEMA “forever.”
…We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 12. Oktober 2017
A blackout hit Puerto Rico’s capital just hours before lawmakers spoke at the conference Thursday. Two of the territory’s main power plants shut down, leaving an estimated 970,000 customers in San Juan, Palo Seco, and neighboring areas without power.
Beyond the devastation of Hurricane Maria, and Hurricane Irma before it, Puerto Rico has been in an economic crisis for more than a decade. In 2006, Congress ended special tax breaks that had helped the island’s economy. Since then, large numbers of residents have left for the mainland, further hurting the economy.
In May, the island filed for the equivalent of federal bankruptcy. With the added economic and humanitarian effects of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló saidin late January that the U.S. territory’s plan to pay $3.6 billion of its $70 billion debt in the next five years is likely dead.
Richard Carrión Matienzo, an entrepreneur in San Juan who spoke on a panel after the senators’ speeches, said Puerto Rico has a “human capital crisis.”
The population’s average age is rising as young professionals leave the island for better opportunities on the mainland. By focusing on new business opportunities on the island, he hopes to “create a Puerto Rico that attracts them again.”
Sanders said the bill would fund elementary, secondary and higher education in Puerto Rico, and ensure that public school districts are not privatized by charter networks. The senators said 270 schools are still without power, and about 100 have been forced to close.
Randi Weingarten, president of the Shanker Institute, said public schools were the first places where citizens went for hot meals after Hurricane Maria struck.
“There is no question that the recovery of Puerto Rico is tied to the recovery of the Puerto Rican Public School system,” Weingarten said.
Blumenthal said that until adequate federal aid is provided to Puerto Rico, its residents — who are Americans — will continue to be treated as “second-class citizens.”