04.01.19

Statement On The Disaster Emergency Supplemental

Statement of Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
On The Disaster Emergency Supplemental
Senate Floor
Friday, April 1, 2019

It is the responsibility of the federal government to stand with American communities in crisis. And I appreciate the efforts of Chairman Shelby and his staff to move this process forward. I know communities in the Chairman’s state recently experienced their own natural disaster, and as Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee, as a United States Senator, and as a Vermonter, I am ready to stand with the people of Alabama.

Because that is what we as Americans do. When Tropical Storm Irene devastated my state in 2011, Members of this body came to me not as Republicans or Democrats, but as American citizens eager to help their neighbor. And when disasters hit other parts of the country, I have done the same.

But now, for more than a year, one of our neighbors has been in crisis. In 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by two back-to-back category five hurricanes. An estimated 2,975 American citizens lost their lives. Their homes were demolished and their communities were destroyed.

That was more than a year ago. Today, if you were to fly over Puerto Rico, the landscape would still be specked with blue, plastic tarps that have served as temporary roofs and shelters. From the ground, you would see that the wear and tear of a year and a half has frayed the plastic. The boards haphazardly holding up these plastic roofs have warped and appear ready to collapse.

The New York Times wrote a story on the one-year anniversary of the storms and the stories it told are heartbreaking. One woman, Martina Cruz Sanchez, described her hurried routine every time it rains. First, she has to climb a ladder to where her roof used to be before 100 plus mile-an-hour winds ripped it off and scattered it around the island. Then, using a hose, she has to manually siphon off the accumulating puddles to keep the roof from leaking on what little she has left.

Ms. Cruz’s situation is not unique. In a different part of the Island, Pablo Figueroa is forced to live in the only corner of his small home that still has a roof. Two others described living out of a tent in their neighbor’s garage. A fallen tree remains unremoved from where it first crashed through Paula Cruz Ortiz’s home. Julia Rivera, a mother of nine, laments that she has “lost everything” but her “faith in god.”

Across the island, water logged walls that have gone unrepaired have begun to rot. A hospital that was flooded was overtaken by toxic mold and a year after the storm, remained closed. The mold in 82-year-old Leomida Uniel’s home has stained the walls black and caused a lung infection.

When Carmen Cruz was asked about losing her home, she said: “It was a little house, two bedrooms. But for me it was a castle.”

These are American citizens. These are our neighbors. These are human beings. We should treat them as such. To do any less is an embarrassment to our country, this body and our humanity.

This was an extraordinary disaster that requires an extraordinary response. But instead of standing with our neighbors, the President has chosen to hold petty grudges. He wants to pick winners and losers by deciding who gets assistance based on his own arbitrary standards. This is wrong. It is un-American.

I know firsthand that the federal government is a critical partner in the effort to recover and rebuild. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia Florida, California, Texas, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, just to name a few, are all counting on us to get this bill across the finish line.

I have urged Senate Republicans to take up and pass the House bill, H.R. 268, since the House first passed it in January. But they refused, forcing Puerto Rico to begin to cut back nutrition assistance weeks ago. I am glad that the Republican substitute includes money for Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance program. We must get this money to the island, and soon. But nutrition assistance is not enough. Puerto Rico needs to rebuild.

I have offered a compromise path forward that addresses the needs of Puerto Rico and unlocks billions of dollars in additional assistance for the mainland.

If Senate Republicans accept this proposal we could quickly pass this disaster bill in both the Senate and House, foregoing the need for a conference, and get assistance to the people that need it sooner rather than later. In a moment, I will ask unanimous consent to take up and adopt this amendment. If this amendment is not adopted, I will vote against the cloture motion on the Republican Substitute. We cannot advance a bill that does not address these critical needs.

H.R. 268, the underlying House-passed bill, is a good bill. It would provide for much-needed relief for victim of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, Hawaii volcanoes and California Wildfires, just to name a few. And it also continues critical assistance to Puerto Rico. Today, I filed an amendment to extend relief to recent tornadoes in Alabama, and the flooding in the Midwest. H.R. 268 was drafted before the tornados and flooding occurred, and my amendment would ensure they receive aid as well. In a moment, I will ask unanimous consent that this amendment to the House bill be adopted as well.

It is the responsibility of the federal government to stand with all American communities in crisis, and we must do so now. The needs are pressing. The people are waiting.

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