TAMPA — It was only a day trip, but it was long enough for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to lash Congress for failing to help those in Puerto Rico still suffering from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria.
"Puerto Ricans are Americans," he said. "They are U.S. citizens, and a lot of my fellow members of Congress don’t understand that."
Florida’s senior U.S. senator spoke at a Friday news conference held with Hispanic community leaders at his downtown Tampa office. He delivered a bleak report from his recent trip there with a fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando. They flew out at 6 a.m. Wednesday and returned that night at 9 p.m.
Nelson spoke on the 100th day since the Category 4 storm struck the island on Sept. 20. Maria’s wind speeds of up to 155 mph devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and plunged the U.S. territory into darkness.
"Puerto Rico is not being treated right," Nelson said. "You can imagine here in Florida if we had gone 97 days without electricity people would be so hopping mad they would absolutely demand things."
That damage has continued on the mainland, Nelson said, when earlier this month Congress passed a tax bill that he said will force Puerto Rico further into debt.
The bill eliminates a long-standing tax deduction for manufacturing companies on the island, eliminates a rebate on rum taxes and excludes the U.S. territory from the child tax credit benefits enjoyed by American citizens.
Nelson complained that Congress made it more expensive for manufacturers to continue operating in Puerto Rico — hurting industries that account for hundreds of thousands of jobs and significant portions of its economy.
"A knife was put to the neck of Puerto Rico .?.?. ," Nelson said, adding: "This is not right. This is not fair."
He asked the local community for their support when the U.S. Senate reconvenes next month and must once again consider a disaster spending bill.
The current disaster relief bill, passed by the House but vetoed in the Senate, still requires Puerto Rico to pay for 10 to 25 percent of its recovery dollars — money he said the island simply doesn’t have.
Nelson said it isn’t too late for Congress to reverse course. But he added it cannot be done without help from Republicans, who control the White House and Congress.
The senator also criticized the federal response to help Puerto Rico. The Army Corp of Engineers has been "as slow as molasses" in rebuilding the electrical grid, he lamented, letting more than a month pass before work started.
Puerto Rican authorities on Friday reported that nearly half of its customers still lack electrical power three months after Maria, according to the Associated Press. That generated outrage from locals, complaining that the island’s government has mismanaged its response to the disaster.
Officials said 55 percent of the nearly 1.5 million customers have power, which is the first time the government has provided that statistic since landfall. In the past, officials had only reported power generation levels, which stand at nearly 70 percent of pre-storm levels.
Nelson added this statistic: Last month, 91 percent of the island had access to potable water, but that has now dropped to 86 percent.
The Senator said he visited Las Piedras on the east side of the island, which still has no electricity. Bayamón Hospital was so badly damaged that tarps still cover the roof and two floors had to be closed and barricaded from the rest of the facility. Three months of rain has left black mold coating the walls on those abandoned floors, making patients even sicker.
For those who stay, resources remain scarce. Nelson spoke of entire neighborhoods still without power and homes rendered inaccessible because of washed out highways. Another island industry, tourism, has also suffered greatly, he said.
"You wouldn’t believe how vacant the restaurants and so forth were," Nelson said. "The only good news is that a lot of the hotel rooms are being filled with (federal) employees. But the tourists simply haven’t come back."
No wonder so many have fled, he said. More than 250,000 Puerto Ricans have evacuated to Florida alone, with more than half of those settling in the Orlando region.
He said there are also critical shortfalls of key personnel. Of the 15,000 doctors who were on the island when Maria made landfall, only 9,000 remain.
Florida could also suffer as a result, Nelson said, because while the state pours resources into helping the island, it also needs resources to accommodate its newest residents.
"What we are seeing is a movement of people from a U.S. territory to a state," he said. "Unless we act fast, we will drain the economic life blood from our own people."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.