This story was reported under a partnership with CT Latino News.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal had some criticism for the federal government this weekend after spending Friday and Saturday in Puerto Rico assessing the response to the earthquakes that have been shaking the island since late December.
“I think the U.S. is failing. Our Nation is failing the people of Puerto Rico, who are our fellow Americans,” Connecticut’s senior senator said Saturday during a news conference following a meeting with Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez. “I’m here to take back with me the images, faces, and voices of the people of Puerto Rico.”
During his visit to the southwest region of the island most affected by the disaster, Blumenthal said he saw children coming back to school in tents and other temporary facilities.
One of those tents was at Cancha de Complejo Santa María, a sports complex in the town of Guayanilla. Based on the possibility of more quakes, officials decided to be cautious and closed the Arístides Cares Quirós School. Instead, they set up tent-classrooms on the athletic fields until the earthquake activity settles down. In Guayanilla, 2,174 students from five elementary schools and one high school are studying under tents.
He also stopped at Agripina Seda Middle School in Guánica, which served 434 students before the building collapsed in one of the quakes.
Healthcare services in the region are being provided under tents as well. “They [the clinics] have cracks, and they are still rebuilding,” he added.
Supports Governor, But Federal Funding Is Needed
On Saturday, Blumenthal’s meeting with Gov. Vázquez lasted 50 minutes. Afterward, he said he was “impressed” by the “inspiring” work she has done and said she has the “accountability, integrity and trust necessary” to continue and increase federal aid to Puerto Rico.
“Necesitamos hacer más por la gente de Puerto Rico (We have to do more for the people of Puerto Rico),” the Democrat said in Spanish.
He was referring to billions of dollars in disaster relief that he says has been held up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and also by the Republican-controlled Senate, as the island’s problems were compounded by earthquakes while it was still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which struck in 2017.
On Feb. 10, Blumenthal, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, and the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation wrote to HUD Secretary Ben Carson to demand that HUD stop delaying the release of disaster mitigation and recovery money from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) fund.
The letter cited HUD for “unprecedented restrictions and delays” in the release of $16.5 billion in hurricane relief funds for the island. Specifically, the letter said HUD failed to publish the required disaster mitigation funding notice for the island within 90 days of passage on June 6, 2019. They called it a “deliberate failure to fulfill” a clear mandate from Congress. He said the notice wasn’t published until Jan. 27 – more than five months past the deadline.
The delay is based on Carson’s decision to appoint a federal financial monitor to oversee the disbursement of the island’s disaster funds, which he announced Aug. 2, 2019.
Carson then announced the disaster recovery grant agreement with Puerto Rico on Jan. 16, 2020, “making $8.2 billion available” related to Hurricane Maria.
“Now that proper financial controls are in place, implementing the second phase of Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery program can move forward with an extension to its line of credit,” Carson said. “Additional oversight was needed before we could proceed with confidence that these critical disaster recovery funds will reach those who need them the most.”
But Puerto Ricans are frustrated by the slow pace of the actual disbursement of the funds beyond what is said to be “made available” in press releases. Blumenthal and other Connecticut leaders say the additional restrictions are unnecessary and are making it difficult for the island to recover.
“Right now there are delays and blockages. Only a fraction of federal funds that Congress has allocated through HUD has actually been available,” Blumenthal said in the press conference, referencing the hurricane relief funds. “Trump’s administration, unfortunately, is doing less. I’ll come back to talk with my colleagues to urge that more funds are released.”
Aside from the hurricane relief funds, Congress also took action to help Puerto Rico respond to the earthquakes. The House passed an Emergency Supplemental Appropriation on Feb. 7 to provide $4.67 billion for educational needs, infrastructure repairs, and community development activities.
Blumenthal warned that the bill still needs the approval of the Republican-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump’s signature.
“Colleague Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), stop blocking these bills,” Blumenthal said. “The aid is necessary for Puerto Rico. The Supplemental is one of them.”
Many Puerto Ricans on the island feel that their government is not doing enough. There are still hundreds of refugees almost two months after the strongest earthquake of the “swarm” shocked the island. However, the Democrat argued that being the Mayor or Governor “is a very hard job.”
He said he can only talk about the federal sphere, and work to make sure local officials have resources to assist the island.
“But I understand people’s impatience,” Blumenthal said.
Even though the senator said that he’s proud of the Puerto Rican community in Connecticut, because they are “a source of talent, culture, energy, new businesses, as well as workers,” Blumenthal mentioned that he wanted “to encourage people to come to Connecticut, but at the same time to return to Puerto Rico.”
“We should be opening our arms, but, at the same time, we want the students, doctors, engineers, business people and lawyers – the talent – to stay here. Puerto Rico needs that talent. We don’t want to encourage a ‘brain drain’,” he said.
On Friday, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced that his administration has identified $75,000 in state funding to provide housing support for residents of the island who have relocated to Connecticut, following the recent earthquakes.
Blumenthal said that Connecticut had set up a special bilingual learning program after Hurricane Maria in order to help students who had moved north after being displaced by the storm.
He also visited the Costa Sur Power Plant in Guayanilla, which is supposed to provide a quarter of Puerto Rico’s electricity.
“We need to approach the energy and power issue in a long-term investment,” Blumenthal said, adding, “Costa Sur may not open again, and if it does, nobody knows when.”
Changes at Costa Sur
Uncertainty about the plant’s future was compounded when its manager, Ramón Aguilar Martínez, was removed on Feb. 16 by José Ortiz, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
Aguilar Martínez was allegedly demoted – to his previous job as an engineer at the Central de Palo Seco power plant in Toa Baja – following a disagreement. He contradicted Ortiz about the extent of the generator’s damage at Costa Sur.
Johnny Rodríguez Ortiz, head of the Association of Retirees of the Electric Power Authority, criticized PREPA’s executive director for allegedly dismissing and punishing Aguilar Martínez.
The association stated that Costa Sur plant “remains viciously closed” by Ortiz under the allegation that “it’s not repairable until fully inspected,” and that it will be out of operation for a year.
Connecticut has the sixth largest population of Puerto Ricans in the United States at more than 300,000 residents. According to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Puerto Ricans accounted for 8.3% of the total population in Connecticut in 2016, and 53% of the state’s Hispanic or Latino population.
About the reporter
Angélica Serrano-Román is Puerto Rican journalist and has been reporting for Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism since 2019. She interned at Puerto Rico’s main newspaper, El Nuevo Día, in 2019, and has been published by the Orlando Sentinel, Univision Orlando, and Metro Puerto Rico. She also is a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.