Washington • Just back from visiting Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys, Rep. Rob Bishop said Tuesday that Congress will have to pony up what’s necessary to improve the electrical grid and water systems in the hurricane-ravaged areas, not just replace them.
Bishop, a Utah Republican who as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee has oversight over U.S. territories, said it was sobering to see the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in September, especially in Puerto Rico, where electricity, clean water and food remain scarce.
“It is bad,” Bishop said in an interview. “It defies description.”
While the official death toll stands at 51, there are reports that more than 900 people have died since the Category 4 storm hit the island. Some 3.5 million people live there.
Puerto Rico’s aging electrical grid already was a concern before the hurricane slammed into the territory, and Bishop said that it must be beefed up in the recovery. He noted that in the Florida Keys, electrical wires are held up by concrete and steel, while in Puerto Rico, the poles are wooden.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has shipped some 30,000 wooden poles to help prop up the electrical grid, Bishop said.
“If we just put up wooden poles again, it‘s going to be the same problem later on,” the congressman warned. “We’ve got to try and make it better than the way it was or we’re simply wasting taxpayer money.”
Bishop flew to the area Thursday and returned Saturday, and noted that he didn’t stay in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, but drove an hour into the interior of the island to see the impact of the hurricane. He said recent rain now has residents worried about mudslides but that the people he talked to praised FEMA for its quick response.
It was “enlightening to see the resiliency of the people,” Bishop said. “Their homes may be broken but their spirits are not.”
In one small town, he said, a bridge between two parts of the community had washed away but residents jury-rigged a zip line across the water with a shopping cart to ferry goods back and forth.
FEMA and President Donald Trump have come under fire for what critics say was a slow and lacking response to the island’s crisis. Trump, who visited the territory’s capital shortly after the storm, declared that the response was a 10 on a scale of one to 10.
Bishop was unsure how much Congress would have to appropriate to help the island recover — ”It’s not going to be a Kmart special,” he noted — but added that the federal government was going to have to spend it out of “necessity.”
“We’re going to spend money regardless,” he said. “If you do it halfway, then you’re going to have to go back in and do it again.”