LOCAL TIES SPUR LAWMAKERS TO KEEP UP PRESSURE ON PUERTO RICO RELIEF
By Katie Lannan and Michael P. Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 4, 2017...Saying several of their members are struggling to hear from loved ones in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, members of the Legislature's Black and Latino Caucus are keeping up pressure on the Baker administration and the state's Congressional delegation to maximize support for relief efforts on the island.
"This is a crisis, and I'm hoping that we move a lot quicker than what we have done," caucus chair Rep. Frank Moran told the News Service. "I know the governor's helping out, which is really good, sending some National Guard, sending some resources over to Puerto Rico, and also working with us."
Moran said in a statement Tuesday that he's been communicating with Gov. Charlie Baker "almost daily" since the deadly hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20. Immediately after Hurricane Maria plowed across the island, the caucus urged the Baker administration to replicate efforts of other states that used state resources to transport supplies to the island, according to the caucus.
Rep. Frank Moran said Massachusetts must be ready for an influx of residents from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. [Photo: Sam Doran/File/SHNS]
"Our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, and loved ones are suffering following the devastating hurricane," said caucus member Rep. Carlos Gonzalez. "Today, almost two weeks after the storm, several Caucus members are still struggling to hear from their loved ones on the Island."
Moran, a Lawrence Democrat, said he and his wife spent sleepless nights awaiting word from her mother, who lives alone in Puerto Rico, before they finally made contact and discovered she was in good health but suffered some damage to her home.
In letters to Baker, the caucus cited relief efforts in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, asked Baker to mobilize the Massachusetts National Guard and requested that the administration launch relocation planning efforts in anticipation of Puerto Rican citizens arriving in the Bay State - - the governor has formed a task force to prepare for relocation efforts.
The state lawmakers also urged the state's Congressional delegation to press the federal government to take additional steps. Specifically, lawmakers want Congress to repeal laws that they say are hindering the flow of cargo to Puerto Rico, include Puerto Rico in the $15.2 billion federal emergency funding package created in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma; and provide parity in Medicaid rates paid in connection with low-income Puerto Rican residents.
Last week, the Baker administration announced the formation of a task force that would prepare to assist Puerto Ricans temporarily or permanently fleeing the island. With roughly 300,000 Puerto Ricans in Massachusetts, Moran said, the state needs to be ready for an "influx," particularly in communities like Lawrence that already have large Puerto Rican populations.
Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat, said officials will need to address issues around housing, education and health coverage for evacuees.
He said the Black and Latino Caucus is working with Baker's office "to play a specific role in the reconstruction efforts."
"We will continue to work and to push on the urgency for our efforts to help Puerto Rico in any way possible that the Puerto Ricans ask us," he told the News Service.
Arguing against budget veto overrides Wednesday, Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich said unforeseen expenses are "coming down the road" in fiscal 2018, and cited costs he said would come with an influx of residents from Puerto Rico. Hill said he had heard from numerous sources that Massachusetts could see an "increase in citizenry from Puerto Rico" following the hurricane, which could bring added expenses "that weren't before us when we adopted the budget back in April, May, and June."
The Baker administration says it is willing to assist Puerto Rico in a variety of ways but is following federal protocols that guide relief efforts. On Friday, the administration announced Puerto Rico accepted the state's offer to send a six-person specialized National Guard team to the island to support data and mobile communications.
The state has since responded to two other requests made through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the system states use to coordinate disaster response efforts, according to a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
As of Wednesday, Puerto Rican officials had not yet responded to Massachusetts' offer to send 69 state and local police officers, MEMA spokesman Christopher Besse said. He said the state also responded to a call for a team to work in an emergency operations support center, but Puerto Rico canceled that request.
Besse said MEMA is also working to figure out logistics around the storage and delivery of donations already collected by community groups throughout the state.
Groups in Lawrence, Moran said, have gathered more than 400 pallets of goods, including water, food, clothes, batteries, flashlights and generators. Moran said Baker has been helpful in trying to arrange flights to the island.
Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat running for governor, has criticized Baker's approach and advocated for Massachusetts to send a larger National Guard contingent to Puerto Rico, as other states have.
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Warren said the National Guard's 164th Transportation Battalion would be a "perfect fit" to help distribute fuel around the island, and infantry regiments could help clear roadways.
"I've talked to many people in Massachusetts who have family on the island and they’re very frustrated by the federal response," Warren said. "While other governors are finding a way around that problem by pitching in their resources to help, Charlie Baker is still waiting."
Jay Gonzalez, another Democrat seeking the corner office and a former budget chief to Gov. Deval Patrick, said it would be "counterproductive" to respond without coordinating through the national system.
"What happened in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking. This is a humanitarian crisis, and we should be doing everything we can to help the people of Puerto Rico," Gonzalez said in a statement to the News Service. "Massachusetts' response needs to be coordinated with the larger federal effort to be effective; I don’t support sending resources that haven’t been requested through that effort. As someone who participated in the response efforts to emergencies during the Patrick Administration, I know how counterproductive it would be to do so."
Gonzalez said he would also "be preparing to accept as many displaced Americans from Puerto Rico as needed.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One after President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico, Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, said the situation there is improving.
The Army Corps of Engineers is working to build provisional bridges to replace "bridges that were washed away by the water," González-Colón said, according to a White House transcript. She said more than 90 percent of the island remains without power and there is "zero" communications coverage outside of metropolitan areas.
Nearly 60 hospitals are now operational, up from 29 earlier, González-Colón said.
The VA Boston Healthcare System has staff assisting medical efforts in Puerto Rico, according to the hospital.
VA Boston chief of staff Dr. Michael Charness and Detective Thomas Gallagher of the system's police service on Sunday joined a team of VA employees who will travel to Manatí, on the island's north shore, where they will join Department of Health and Human Services staff in setting up a medical station. VA Boston pharmacy technician Nicholas Avery deployed earlier to San Juan to support staff at the VA medical center there.
Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico/Massachusetts Unido por Puerto Rico announced Tuesday it could begin the process of distributing grants to Puerto Rican non-profits by week's end. "We are touched by the level of support that we have seen for the Fund and the people of Puerto Rico since the fund launch on Friday," said Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, co-chair of the Mass. United for Puerto Rico Advisory Committee. "The need is great, but this region has great capacity to help meet it for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, many of whom are being displaced from their communities for weeks, months or longer."
[Sam Doran contributed reporting]