By GABRIELA MARTINEZ
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON – Responding to President Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw federal disaster aid to Puerto Rico, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said the government should be doing more to help the devastated territory, “not less.”
Van Hollen said that three weeks after Hurricane Maria, most Puerto Ricans still do not have access to power, food, and clean drinking water “while officials continue to grow increasingly concerned about how to get relief supplies to the places where they are most needed.”
“I believe we should be doing more to help Puerto Rico – not less,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in a statement to Capital News Service. “Removing federal resources now would be disastrous. We must make emergency funding available without delay – and continue to support Puerto Rico as we rebuild their shattered infrastructure in the years to come.”
On Thursday, the president tweeted that the United States cannot have the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the military and first responders in Puerto Rico “forever.” He also cited Sharyl Attkisson, a television journalist, saying that Puerto Rico’s financial crisis after the hurricane “looms largely of their own making.”
FEMA spokeswoman Eileen Lainez later tweeted a statement that appeared to contradict Trump, saying that FEMA “will be with Puerto Rico, USVI (United States Virgin Islands), every state, territory impacted by a disaster every day, supporting throughout their response & recovery.”
The controversy sparked by the president’s tweeted statements came a day after Puerto Ricans living on the mainland appealed for more aid for their home island at a “Unite for Puerto Rico” rally held at the United States Capitol.
Although attendance was sparse, the rally’s speaker lineup included New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano, as well as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Jennifer González.
“We need to recognize that this is happening in the United States of America,” Velázquez said. “Because our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico – they are Americans citizens – and there should not be a distinction between an American citizen in Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico.”
Kimi Laws, of Arlington, Virginia, an interior designer with a daughter and a son, was the lead organizer of the rally. Her husband, George Laws Garcia, is deputy director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, a territorial agency in Washington.
“We are at the mercy of representatives and senators from other states to really kind of commit to helping us,” Laws said.“One of our biggest challenges is that we really have to convince people from other jurisdictions outside of Puerto Rico that we need this help.”
Rally organizers want Congress to pass a measure similar to the Marshall Plan that would establish a long-term recovery plan for the island, an immediate emergency federal aid package and a permanent repeal of the Jones Act, a 1920 law that requires U.S. territories to ship goods using only U.S.-built and U.S.-flagged ships.
On Thursday, the House approved legislation to assign $36.5 billion for hurricane relief and wildfire recovery. The bill would also allow Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands to borrow up to $4.9 billion dollars. Low-income Puerto Ricans would be able to receive the same kind of emergency nutrition assistance as other states affected by natural catastrophes.
Gisela Morales, a Montgomery County public school teacher and a Puerto Rican resident living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, took time off work to attend the rally.
“We need to find the support that Puerto Rico needs,” Morales said. “If this would have happened here in Maryland, in D.C. I’m pretty sure things would have happened quicker and it would have been a better response than what we have seen in Puerto Rico.”
Morales hopes to bring her 83-year-old grandmother from Ponce, Puerto Rico, to live with her. Her husband, who also has family near Adjuntas, is traveling to the island to install a generator. Morales says her husband still has not seen or talked to his family.
“There are a lot of us, but we also need other people to rally for us,” Morales said, referring to Puerto Ricans living in the United States. “It’s not just us, you know. We would do the same for anybody who needs help.”
“We need more voices,” she said, “not just our voices.”