On Monday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., took to the Senate floor and offered his observations from his trip to Puerto Rico which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. Nelson’s remarks were as follows:
I want to talk about a matter of life and death. It’s happening as we speak in Puerto Rico.
I went there yesterday. I didn’t want to have a flyover of the island, but at the invitation of Governor Rosselló, I got into a helicopter so that I could get up into the mountains, into the areas that have been closed because people hadn’t been able to get there on the roads.
This is what I wanted to see. We’ve had colleagues come back because of a flight over in a helicopter and say that they don’t see a lot of damage. Of course not, because they’re flying over parts of towns that most of the structures are made with concrete blocks. But when you get down there on the ground and go into the structure, then you’re going to see a different story.
First of all, you’re going to smell a different story, because the water has accumulated, and now it’s turning to mold and mildew. And inhabitable conditions. But when you get up into the mountains, the places that were cut off, that not until a week ago did they have the roads cleared so that people could get up.
And as we speak, as of yesterday, still reconstructing the roads so that people can get on these narrow winding little dirt roads going up through the mountains. So for two and a half weeks communities have been completely cut off like the one that I saw yesterday — Utuado — way up in the mountains. I want to show you some pictures, but I want you to realize that today’s Monday.
Next Wednesday is four weeks since the hurricane has hit. Can you imagine going into a state of 3.5 million people, and 85 percent of the people did not have electricity? Or can you imagine going into a state — and, by the way, these are our fellow American citizens. They’re just in a territory. Can you imagine going into a state where 50 percent, a month after the hurricane, 50 percent of the people do not have potable water? It’s an absolute outrage, and I don’t think the American people realize what’s happening.
So let me be your eyes by what I saw yesterday.
So, Madam President, this is a river bottom in a, in the little town of Utuado. This side of the river is cut off from this side of the river because the one bridge washed out. If you look at this structure, the question is, how long is this going to last because it is tilting to the left, and any major rush of water down is going to take out this section. I want you to see how creative these people are. It’s hard to see at this distance, but this they have erected a cable system coming over to the other side. What they have taken is the basket of a grocery cart, taken the wheels off, taken the handles off. And this is on a pulley where these guys are pulling it over and then they pull it back. This is how people on this side of the river are getting food and water and medicine if they can’t walk across.
This is how people are surviving now when this section of the bridge goes — and it’s just a matter of time — they’re going to try to hook up a cable over here at the top of this river bank over to the top of this river bank and do the same kind of pulley.
You know, here in the states on the mainland, if something like this happened, the Corps of Engineers would be there. We’d be rebuilding. The Department of Transportation would be rebuilding that. Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, these are our fellow Americans, citizens. And they’re going without.
All right, let me show you another one. So this is the bank of another river. By the way, on this bank, let me show you the result. That’s what happened. This whole house. Right behind here, I’ll show you the church in a minute. So I asked the pastor did the people survive. He said one was trapped in the house. They were able to get that person out. The others had already fled. But you can see the force of the extra rain, the water coming down, and houses like that are history. Here’s that same section of the river with the church in the background, the church survived. I talked to the pastor of the church. Here I am having a conversation with the people that live on this side. I asked the pastor did he lose any parishioners. He did not. On his side of his church, he has a dish. And because he has a generator, he is the only person in this town that has any kind of communication, in this case through the satellite dish for television.
Everything else is either being run on a generator or else there is no electricity. And as you know, these generators are not powerful enough to run air conditioners. And, therefore, you go through the water accumulates, the mold and mildew starts to accumulate. And all the health effects as a result of that.
And so, Madam President, does this look like something that we would have in this country? Does this look like something that we would have in this country? Or does this look like a third world country? Do these images and these photographs, do they bring to mind other Caribbean nations that we’ve seen that have been devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes? Think about what happened to Haiti.
So when people go down and happen to go to San Juan, which by the way, 85 percent of San Juan is without power, you see these little pockets. And of course they’re trying to get the generators going to the hospitals for the obvious reasons. They need the generators to go to stations where people are getting their dialysis treatments. That’s obvious. But what about the wear and tear on the generators and the replacements? The governor of Puerto Rico, Governor Rosselló, has a very ambitious schedule.
He wants to restore 95 percent of power by the middle of December. I hope that the governor is right. But what I’m afraid is with the Army Corps of Engineers going through that laborious procedures, which it’s been turned over to them to get the electrical grid and structures up and running, I’m afraid it’s going to be a lot longer.
I asked for estimates on the immediate needs, and especially the rebuilding of the grid. $4 billion. Are we going to be able to get that for them? What are going to be the ultimate needs of Puerto Rico if, as we just heard, the senator from Texas talk about his state and the estimates that you’ve heard out of Texas of being as much as $100 billion. What about the needs of Puerto Rico? What about the needs of Florida? What about the needs of the Virgin Islands? We got a supplemental coming up but is that going to take care in the interim up until December the needs of all of those four areas that have been hit hard?
If Texas is $100 billion, long-term fix for Puerto Rico may well be $80 billion to $90 billion. And who knows what it’s going to be for Florida and the Virgin Islands. And, therefore, are we in this Congress with or without the leadership of the White House going to have the stomach to help our federal fellow American citizens?
Oh, I’m sure we’re going to help Texas, and I’m sure — I certainly hope so, we’re going to help my state of Florida, but are we willing to help the American citizens in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico?
So it’s not a rosy picture when you hear some members of Congress come back and say they didn’t see a lot of damage. It’s people using a pulley that have jerry-rigged across a river to survive with daily supplies of food and fuel and water, and you can’t see that from the air, and if you have no power, you have no water, you have no sewer systems, and what you have is chaos.
So a month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The hospitals are rationing services while they struggle to get the medicine and the fuel they need to power the generators. The dialysis centers. They’re struggling to get the water and fuel that they need to operate. So I, like many, have written in this case to the U.S. to do more to help these dialysis centers obtain the supplies that they need.
And so I wanted to come to the floor of the Senate, having gotten back very late last night from Puerto Rico, and tell the Senate that more needs to be done, and it’s going to have to be done for a very long period of time.
We have to do more to ensure the supplies that are reaching the island are getting to those that need them. Remember, remember things got piled up in the ports in the first week, and they didn’t get out to be distributed. It took what Senator Rubio and I were saying at the time, it’s going to take the united states military, which is uniquely organized and capable of distribution of long logistical lines, and it wasn’t until a week later after the hurricane that the three-star General Buchanan was put in charge.
I met with him and the head of FEMA down in the Puerto Rico area, that head of FEMA. Finally, those supplies are getting out, but this is supplies for survival. So we need to pass a disaster relief package that fully funds Puerto Rico’s recovery. We need to provide Puerto Rico with the community development block grant money that Governor Rosselló has requested, just like we need the CDBGs for Texas and Florida and the Virgin Islands as well, and we need to make Puerto Rico eligible for permanent work assistance so that they can start to rebuild their infrastructure immediately.
So I want to make something fairly clear. There should absolutely be no ambiguity about what is going on in Puerto Rico. It isn’t rosy. It isn’t that you can sit in a comfortable seat in a helicopter looking down from 1,500, 2,000 feet on structures that look like they are intact when, in fact, the reality on the ground below is completely different. And certainly, they didn’t go up there and see all those bridges washed out in the mountains. They didn’t see people scrambling for food. They didn’t see the Puerto Rican National Guard rebuilding that little narrow dirt road, winding along the banks of that river. They didn’t see or walk into the buildings that you would almost be overwhelmed with the smell, the smells particularly of mold and mildew.
People have died as a result of this hurricane. People have died because of the lack of supplies and power. Our fellow Americans are dying, and they desperately need our help. And ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, I have seen it with my own eyes on the ground. And I’m here to urge this congress and the administration that we have to act and act for a very long period of time. Our citizens in Puerto Rico need our help. We have the responsibility to help fellow citizens in need.
Madam President, I yield the floor.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000.
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