Warren, Colleagues Continue to Call for HELP Committee Hearings on Hurricanes' Impact on Puerto Rico & U.S. Virgin Islands

Author  Ashley Woolheater

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with five of her colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sent a letter to HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to once again request that the Committee hold hearings to assess the challenges facing the health and educational systems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

Senator Warren was joined by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) in sending the letter, which comes more than 16 months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Text of Letter (PDF)

In December 2017, Senator Warren led a bipartisan group of senators in calling on the committee to hold hearings on the islands' recovery. A month later, 186 organizations sent a letter echoing this request.  In September 2018, Senator Warren led colleagues in reiterating their request after the committee failed to hold hearings.  The HELP Committee has not held any hearings on the islands' recovery since the hurricanes made landfall in September 2017.

"More than 16 months after Hurricane Maria, the Committee so far has failed the more than 3 million U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands," the senators wrote in their letter.

Echoing their previous requests, the senators' letter noted that Hurricane Maria has proved to be the deadliest natural disaster in recent U.S. history and highlighted the ongoing difficulties faced by the health and educational systems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In Puerto Rico, the senators noted, there are signs that the opioid crisis is picking up momentum, while a survey of health centers on the island found that patients were likelier since the hurricane to have suicidal thoughts or attempts, alcohol or other substance use disorders, and poorly managed chronic conditions.  In the U.S. Virgin Islands, medical facilities continue to face serious financial burdens associated with the continued cost of hurricane recovery, while infrastructural repairs to educational facilities on the islands are still ongoing.

"We have a responsibility to exercise our oversight responsibilities to ensure that our fellow U.S. citizens struggling with the aftermath of enormous catastrophes receive the resources and assistance they need to recover from the hurricanes and to rebuild in a long-term, sustainable way," the senators continued. "We must find out what went wrong in the preparation for and recovery from this disaster, and make sure that federal and state agencies are better prepared for the next natural disaster."

Senator Warren discussed the senators' request at a September 2018 HELP Committee hearing.

In the months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Senator Warren has:

  • Introduced the Protecting Disaster Relief Funds Act, to prevent President Trump from diverting funds appropriated for disaster relief to building a border wall.
  • Introduced the U.S. Territorial Relief Act, a bill to provide an avenue to comprehensive debt relief for Puerto Rico and other disaster-ravaged U.S. territories so they can recover and rebuild.
  • Worked with Senator Bernie Sanders to author a "Marshall Plan" for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This comprehensive legislation would address the immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and ensure that the islands are able to recover and rebuild. 
  • Introduced the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act of 2018, a bill to activate the DHAP program to provide stable housing for survivors of major hurricanes, allow survivors who lack legal documents to use alternative proof to receive disaster assistance, and allow survivors to use disaster assistance to obtain title to their land.
  • Led the Massachusetts congressional delegation on a trip to Puerto Rico to conduct oversight of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.
  • Led a group of 22 Members of Congress in questioning FEMA and HHS about the Puerto Rico death toll, including about the small fraction of applicants who had been approved for federal funeral assistance and how the government was updating its disaster preparation plans in light of this new information.
  • Led a group of 13 senators in demanding that the federal government take steps to ensure that the official fatality count in Puerto Rico was accurate. The death toll at the time was just 48, though numerous reports indicated that actually far more people had died.
  • Reintroduced with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) a bill to establish a "9/11-style" independent commission to investigate the federal response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

For more information about Senator Warren's work fighting for robust recovery efforts for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, visit www.warren.senate.gov/puertorico.

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