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The emergency supplemental bill introduced in the House of Representatives is a classic case of one step forward, two steps back. While the House bill increases funding from the White House’s grossly insufficient initial funding request, the bill fails the 3.4 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico in the most critical ways.
The House bill provides $81 billion in funding, compared to the initial White House request of $44 billion. Yet most current estimates for Puerto Rico recovery reach upwards of $90 billion. The $81 billion proposed by the bill is spread thin between four different disasters (Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and the California wildfires) and is insufficient to address Puerto Rico’s dire, ongoing needs. Adding insult to injury, the bill maintains untenable cost-sharing requirements for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is already $72 billion in debt and cannot be expected to now shoulder major costs related to relief and recovery. Emergency disaster funding should not have strings attached, which in this case, would push Puerto Rico into an even deeper economic crisis. The bill also cruelly rejects proposals for aid to support the most vulnerable, such as funding to rebuild Women, Infant and Children (WIC) clinics.
The bill contains some language that minimally acknowledges the need for flexibility for FEMA to build back better. The limited authority granted to waive the pre-disaster condition limitation, a restriction on rebuilding that only allows FEMA to rebuild infrastructure to its pre-disaster condition, for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is a tacit acknowledgement that those systems were grossly inadequate to begin with. Dangerously aging water, power and sanitation infrastructure is one of the key factors that led to this full-blown humanitarian crisis.
The unique and comprehensive nature of the disaster in Puerto Rico requires much broader authority to waive the pre-disaster condition limitations on rebuilding. By limiting flexibility to only those deemed “critical” and rejecting proposals for broader, more robust language and funding for resilience efforts, the House has hamstrung FEMA’s ability to deliver systems that can withstand future disasters, which may come as soon as the next hurricane season next fall.
Last, but not least, the essential role of local communities and partners in successful relief and recovery is missing entirely in this piece of legislation. From Oxfam’s experience working on humanitarian relief around the globe, we know that supporting local organizations and building local capacity is the best way to ensure just relief and recovery. In Puerto Rico, local groups and leaders were the first to respond and they will be there long after FEMA leaves. Aid’s effectiveness is directly proportional to how much reaches groups on the ground and how accountable it is to directly impacted communities. Yet, a commitment to support community partnerships and local capacity is nowhere in the bill.
Oxfam calls on the Senate to improve and expand this legislation so that it truly reflects the scope and scale of the emergency. They should take the opportunity to invest in human resources and resilient systems that will create a stronger Puerto Rico.