WASHINGTON ― Many Republican senators say the federal government is doing its best to provide relief to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans are still struggling without clean water and electricity.
It’s been nearly a month since Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island, and 34 percent of its people still don’t have drinking water, according to a government website that is updated daily. About 82 percent of Puerto Rico still doesn’t have power.
Relief workers on the ground say the situation is much worse than the government has said, however. Volunteer nurses told HuffPost last week that even when people do have access to water, it’s often contaminated with bacteria that can easily spread diseases, like leptospirosis. Most supermarkets on the island remain closed or are in dire conditions.
Some military aid also seems to be having difficulty making its way to the island. The USNS Comfort, the Navy’s state-of-the-art hospital ship that was dispatched to the island in the wake of the hurricane, is sitting mostly unused. Just 33 its 250 beds are currently occupied, CNN reported on Tuesday.
The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, has been begging for more help from the federal government for weeks, despite being “filtered out” by emergency responders in Washington.
Moreover, disaster experts say the government’s death count does not appear to add up. Health officials raised the storm’s death toll this week to 48 people, but experts told Vox last week that figure seems extremely low given the grave conditions on the island.
Most GOP senators who spoke to HuffPost about the situation on the island, however, said they believed the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico has been adequate. They argued that special circumstances on the ground made Puerto Rico a unique case, and that federal agencies responsible for providing relief, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ought to be graded on a curve.
“The logistics are different,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said Tuesday. “It’s an island. And Puerto Rico also does not have the recovery infrastructure that you have in the continental U.S. So that makes it challenging too. I think everyone’s doing the best they can.”
Referring apparently to San Juan’s mayor, Kennedy added, “I’m sorry the mayor of Puerto Rico is unhappy, but she’s just going to have to be unhappy. We’re doing all we can do. And I do think some of it is political.”
Compared to the U.S. response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, another island in the Caribbean, however, the immediate response in Puerto Rico has paled in comparison. The leaders of the 2010 humanitarian mission in Haiti told The Washington Post last month they were disappointed in particular by the military’s lack of urgency in Puerto Rico.
Other GOP senators offered similar thoughts about the difficulties of providing aid to Puerto Rico, arguing that its lack of infrastructure made FEMA’s job tougher than usual.
“FEMA normally works in such a process that they work with a state emergency system and a local emergency system, which are simply not there in Puerto Rico,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. “I’m not blaming Puerto Rico because they lost everything. But this is a very unique situation and it’s one in which FEMA has had to take on not just a federal role, but a state and local role as well.”
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan echoed the sentiment.
“I think FEMA, given how overwhelmed they’ve been with the different disasters and responses, I think they’ve done an adequate job,” he said Tuesday. “But, you know, we’re still focused on it. It’s not over.”
The Senate is expected to vote this week on House-passed legislation to fund emergency relief efforts for U.S. communities affected by a number of recent storms, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as the wildfires raging in the West. The supplemental aid package includes $18.7 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, and $1.27 billion for disaster food assistance for Puerto Rico.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said the disaster aid package fully funded relief for Puerto Rico, which “shows a good faith effort to try to make things right” for the Americans living there.
“As we know in the Gulf South, normally the states pay a significant percentage,” he said. “I like the fact that 100 percent [in aid] is being paid for a territory so deeply in debt that otherwise [private] contractors would not come.”
Not every GOP senator who spoke to HuffPost said they were assured by the progress being made in Puerto Rico, however.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins expressed concern about the lack of reliable water sources.
“We clearly need to do more to provide clean and safe drinking water to the Americans, which is what Puerto Ricans are,” Collins added.
Still, even those GOP senators who described the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico as far worse than what is currently being reported were careful not to criticize FEMA or President Donald Trump, who has spoken critically of the local government’s response and who has said U.S. relief workers and military cannot be on the island “forever.”
“Puerto Rico is an absolute disaster,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.
The Montana senator said that he had received information about the situation on the ground from a “personal connection” who had described the “utter, utter devastation” there.
“Electricity might not be there for 6 months, at least, to a year,” Daines said. “I’m not sure there will be an adequate response, but there’s a tremendous amount of philanthropy and non-governmental institutions involved. [A] better [response] is always possible. I’m grateful to see the president and the vice president actually on the ground there.”
Asked whether FEMA needed to do more to help Americans in Puerto Rico, Daines said the agency “can always do more.”
“I think it’s a tragic devastation of historic proportions,” he said. “People are dying right now.”
Correction: This article incorrectly identified Mike Rounds as the senator from North Dakota. He represents the state of South Dakota.