During a press conference Wednesday, lawmakers from the 31-member Democratic group bashed the federal government’s response to the storm, with Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) dubbing it President Donald Trump’s “most significant failure.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a former Marine who served in the Iraq War, blamed the administration for the nearly 5,000 deaths that a recent Harvard study estimated were connected to the storm.
“It wasn’t the hurricane that destroyed these lives. It was the fact that the Trump administration could not get their stuff together enough to save these Americans,” Gallego said during the press conference.
“I had better access to resources in a quicker amount of time in the middle of the desert in Iraq than our fellow Americans did three hours’ flight from ... Washington, D.C,” he continued. “That is sad.”
The caucus announced Wednesday that it plans to introduce legislation next week that would establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to examine Hurricane Maria’s death toll, the Trump administration’s response to the storm and the federal government’s disaster preparedness.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) suggested the official death toll ― which remains at 64 ― prompted a “sluggish” response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of the historic storm.
Trump repeatedly downplayed Maria’s disastrous toll on Puerto Rico. During a visit to the island in October, two weeks after the hurricane made landfall, Trump said Hurricane Maria wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which left more than 1,800 people dead in the Gulf Coast area. At the time, Puerto Rico’s official death toll from Maria was 16.
“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people,” Trump said in October. “Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s been taking place in Puerto Rico.”
“This administration feels it’s acceptable to treat Puerto Ricans as second-class Americans. They are not.”
Trump has remained noticeably silent about the Harvard study’s estimated death toll. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a press briefing on last week that he “takes the situation in Puerto Rico extremely seriously.”
But Gallego and his fellow members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus aren’t buying the White House’s statement.
“If this had happened in Florida, if this had happened in Texas, if this had happened anywhere in the mainland, this would be a national controversy,” he said Wednesday. “There would be hearings happening automatically. And for some reason, this administration feels it’s acceptable to treat Puerto Ricans as second-class Americans. They are not.”