Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Vice Chairman Of The Senate Appropriations Committee On Emergency Supplemental Appropriations For Recent Disasters

No one in this chamber is immune from disaster.  Six years ago, Marcelle and I watched with great alarm as communities around Vermont felt the devastating impact of Tropical Storm Irene.  That storm washed away entire communities in our state, tearing down homes, local landmarks and bridges alike. 

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, from across the country, stood by Vermont’s side then to help us rebuild.  Because that is who we are as Americans.  We lift each other up in times of disaster. 

Today, in California and across the West, families are returning to the charred ruins of their homes.  In Florida and Texas communities are trying to put their lives back together after Hurricane Harvey and Irma. And in Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands are still without potable water, electricity, cell service, or adequate medical supplies following Hurricane Maria.  Millions of Americans need us to work together to help lift them up. 

That is why it is so disappointing that President Trump seems more concerned with claiming credit for a job well done than the actual situation on the ground, particularly in Puerto Rico.  President Trump has given himself a “10 out of 10” for the Administration’s response to the devastating hurricane, but let’s look at some numbers that really matter.  

It has been 48 days since Hurricane Irma made landfall in Puerto Rico, and 34 days since Hurricane Maria tore through the island. These storms wreaked havoc on those who live there, destroying houses, and killing at least 49 people.  Yet 48 days later nearly 80 percent of the island is still without power, and over 30 percent of the population is without clean drinking water.  Roads are impassable.  Bridges are down.  Hospitals operate on generators. 

The Administration was slow to respond to the disaster, and to claim that they get a “10 out of 10” for their response is to ignore the facts.  This is not a reality TV show where the participant with the highest score advances to the next round.  These are people’s lives.  These are people’s homes.  This is the hard part of governing.  This is where we roll up our sleeves and dig in for the long haul. 

Today we will vote to advance a disaster package containing $36.5 billion in additional emergency relief.  The bill includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund, $16.0 billion for National Flood Insurance Program debt forgiveness, $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance, and $576.5 million to address wildfires in the Western United States.  

As Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I support this bill and urge my colleagues to do the same.  If we do not act, the Disaster Relief Fund and the Flood Insurance Program will run out of resources in a matter of days.  This money will allow FEMA, the Department of Defense, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies to continue their work in all of the devastated communities, and families to begin rebuilding their homes.  

But this is still just the next step on the path to recovery. 

Last week I met with the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló.  He detailed the unique challenges facing Puerto Rico.  The electric grid was almost completely destroyed.  Its infrastructure was demolished.  Houses were flattened.  At the same time, Puerto Rico faces a fiscal situation that will make it nearly impossible for it to provide the federal match required for most disaster assistance programs, and it faces a Medicaid funding crisis that may leave nearly one million people without health care in just a matter of months. 

Our response cannot be business as usual.  Going forward we need to tailor disaster assistance to meet Puerto Rico’s unique challenges.  We may need to consider legislation to address its unique needs.  And, most importantly, we need to think long term.  To simply replace and repair what was destroyed would be short-sighted. 

We must help Puerto Rico recover and rebuild to be more resilient and better prepared.  We should invest in the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and their infrastructure so the next disaster is not a humanitarian crisis. 

This opportunity is not unique to Puerto Rico.  We must acknowledge that historic storms are now annual occurrences, and we must respond accordingly.  Across the country, from the wildfires in California to the flood damage in Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, we can invest in technology, conservation and infrastructure that will mitigate further damage and make our communities more resilient. 

This will require a commitment from the United States Government that is not measured in days, or weeks or months, but in years.  A commitment that does not waiver, and a commitment that does not depend on whether you live in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Today, I urge all Senators to support this emergency supplemental that will provide much needed assistance to disasters across the country.  But this is still just the next step on the path to recovery. 

The Trump Administration has committed to putting forward a third, more comprehensive disaster package in the coming weeks.  As Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I intend to hold the Administration to that commitment.

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