Just before hurricane season officially started on Friday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey—both Democrats from Massachusetts—announced plans to introduce a bill to address homelessness in Puerto Rico, which is still in recovery mode from Hurricane Maria, the storm that ravaged the U.S. territory last September.
"The good news is FEMA has the tools to help these evacuees get back on their feet. The bad news is that FEMA refuses to use those tools."
—Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
"If the Trump administration continues to turn its back on these U.S. citizens in need, it's time for Congress to act," the senators wrote in a guest column for MassLive.com. "That's why we are introducing the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act."
The legislation aims to address the medium- and long-term housing needs of those who survived the storm, but whose homes were seriously damaged or completely destroyed. It would also establish response plans for future natural disasters on the island.
.@SenMarkey & I are introducing a bill to make @FEMA address the medium & long-term housing needs of survivors of Hurricane Maria & future natural disasters. Families are at risk of homelessness & a new hurricane season is about to begin – this can’t wait. https://t.co/sak0XiFudw
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) May 31, 2018
The Trump administration—particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—has been intensely criticized for its inadequate response to the humanitarian crisis that followed the hurricane. New research out this week put the death toll at nearly 6,000—or more than 70 times the government's official count—and about a third of those deaths were due to "delayed or prevented access to medical care."
Storm survivors have struggled for more than eight months to access not only medical care, but also food, drinking water, shelter, and electricity. The island's electrical grid, which was already struggling with mountains of debt prior to the hurricane, has been plagued by delayed repair work and frequent blackouts.
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The senators from Massachusetts visited Puerto Rico and met survivors in January. During that trip, they "saw the challenges facing the island—including the downed power lines, the warnings on water fountains that the water was unsafe, and the homes that were reduced to naked walls, with no roofs, no windows, and no doors."
"FEMA's refusal to act is cruel—and it is not how we treat our fellow U.S. citizens in their time of need."
—Warren and Markey
Noting that the storm destroyed more than 70,000 homes and damaged another 300,000—forcing thousands of families to flee to the mainland—the senators warn of what's to come.
On June 30, FEMA will end its Transitional Shelter Assistance program, which has housed families in hotels, and "many of these evacuees are caught between two impossible situations—at risk of becoming homeless if they don't return to Puerto Rico and living in dangerously substandard housing if they do return."
"The good news is FEMA has the tools to help these evacuees get back on their feet. The bad news is that FEMA refuses to use those tools," the senators wrote. In response, they've drafted a bill that would force FEMA to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to stand up the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), and make it easier for survivors to access FEMA assistance.
DHAP provides subsidies to survivors of natural disasters to help them battle medium- and long-term housing problems. The senators point out that program was used after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and Sandy, but so far, despite demands from locals and federal lawmakers alike, FEMA has failed to implement DHAP for Hurricane Maria survivors.
"FEMA's refusal to act is cruel," the senators conclude, "and it is not how we treat our fellow U.S. citizens in their time of need."