President Trump on Thursday signed a $36.5 billion disaster bill to pay for damage caused by the floods, hurricanes and fires of the past months. Of this amount $6.3 billion will be used to salvage Puerto Rico from the wreckage of Hurricane Maria.
The disaster package had overwhelming support in the U.S. House of Representatives (passing 353-69) and the U.S. Senate (passing 82-17). Those who voted against it objected to the lack of spending cuts to offset disaster funding. There is nothing unusual about the stance of these fiscal conservatives. What is unusual is that the North Carolina congressional delegation cast the most nay votes of any state.
Ninety thousand Puerto Ricans reside in North Carolina, making it the state with the 12th largest Puerto Rican population. Yet representatives Budd, Foxx, Holding, Hudson, Jones, Meadows, Pittenger, Rouzer and Walker, in apparent disregard of their Puerto Rican constituents, voted against the bill. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis voted in favor of disaster aid.
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These fiscal hawks are concerned with the strain posed on the federal budget by the recent chain of disasters. Back in September, Congress appropriated $15.3 billion for Hurricane Harvey, and Texas and Florida are expected to demand more disaster aid in November.
But sometimes humanity outweighs fiscal probity. More than a month after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the families of North Carolinians are still lacking shelter, food and medical care.
Only 25 percent of Puerto Ricans have electricity. Twenty-five percent have no running water and nobody has potable water. Only one hospital on the island, the only trauma center in the Caribbean basin, is fully operational. Last week it suffered power outages and surgeons had to operate with flashlights.
When there are not enough treatment facilities, chronic diseases become fatal. People have died in Puerto Rico because they could not receive dialysis treatment or their oxygen machines stopped working when the power went out.
North Carolinians have already demonstrated the kind of generosity that has eluded their representatives by immediately extending a helping hand to Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million American citizens.
Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse was among the first relief missions to land in San Juan with emergency supplies and generators. The group soon deployed to provide medical care to towns isolated by the hurricane.
Two hundred North Carolina National Guard engineers are in Puerto Rico working to piece the country back together. Gov. Roy Cooper sent 10 emergency management staff to join them in disaster response and recovery efforts.
Twenty volunteers with N.C. Baptist Men and Women on Mission Disaster Relief are in Puerto Rico providing fresh drinking water and clearing debris. They came with 7,000 pounds of water filters, buckets, MREs, batteries, tarps and other supplies.
North Carolina for Puerto Rico, a citizen group in the Triangle area, is shipping hundreds of thousands of pounds of donations to the island.
Even Puerto Rican pets were welcomed in North Carolina. The Humane Society flew eighty-seven dogs and cats from Puerto Rico to Raleigh-Durham International Airport where they were received by local groups. North Carolina’s nine representatives who voted no should learn from the example of these humane and generous citizens. I urge them to travel to Puerto Rico and witness the misery first-hand.
This week’s emergency package was the first installment for the relief and recovery of Puerto Rico. North Carolina legislators will have to vote yea or nay for Puerto Rico when a second disaster aid package is considered, most likely in December.
This is no time to be stingy with federal resources. It is impractical, it is inhumane and it is un-American.
Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a founding member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda and strategist with the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.