Lawmaker criticizes pace of post-hurricane response
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) says too many people in Florida and Puerto Rico are not getting the assistance they need in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“People are getting desperate,” Nelson said in a speech on the Senate floor today. “There were 50,000 people waiting at a center in South Florida and many were turned away after waiting in the heat for hours and hours. And then the next day, it was the same story in another city.”
Nelson criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the amount of time it takes people to reach a FEMA representative by phone, or to get an inspector out to their home.
“You call FEMA, you’re supposed to get a FEMA representative and you have to wait and wait and wait,” Nelson said. “The last time we checked, the expected wait time to get a housing inspector is 45 days. That’s too long for families to wait for an inspector.”
Nelson urged FEMA to find ways to expedite the process of helping those in need, including eliminating any red tape that’s preventing the agency from getting more mobile home into Florida to provide temporary shelter for those displaced by the storm.
“People are suffering and people are hurting,” Nelson said. “Red tape just should not stop anyone in this country from having a safe place to live.”
Nelson urged his Senate colleagues to pass a “robust and comprehensive” aid package to help those still struggling to recover from the recent storms.
“I urge my colleagues to remember the plight of Americans trying to put their life together after a major disaster,” Nelson said. “There should be absolutely no ambiguity that the federal government intends to provide all the necessary assistance to make our people whole.”
Nelson’s remarks come on the heels of a letter he sent last week to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking that the agency provide additional resources to help alleviate the long lines forming at Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program sites across the state.
A copy of Nelson’s letter to Perdue is available here.
Following is a rush transcript of Nelson’s speech today:
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate floor
October 24, 2017
Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, just as the senator from California has outlined the needs of her state having been hit by a natural disaster, so, too, natural disasters, not wildfires, although we’ve had plenty in Florida, but hurricanes, hurricanes have hit other states.
Yesterday this senator spoke at length about the effects on a particular industry, the citrus industry. I showed pictures of 75% to 90% of the fruit on the ground. This senator made a unanimous consent request to include a bipartisan amendment of getting money for agriculture, not just in Florida, but Texas and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and the wildfires in California into the package, specifically about $3 billion for agriculture.
And the losses in Florida on agriculture are $2.5 billion of which three-quarters of a billion is just losses to citrus growers.
Now, that’s all the bad news because the unanimous consent request was rejected. The good news is that although the White House rejected it, they made a promise to put it in a continuing supplemental emergency appropriations in November for all these natural disasters and to get that funding in there for agriculture. But some of us on both sides of this aisle in order to make sure that that promise is kept have put a hold on the nominee for deputy budget director. I will take the White House at its word, and this ought to all be worked out in November. That was the subject of my address to the Senate yesterday along with my colleague Senator Rubio from Florida as we talked about the losses, particularly to agriculture.
Today I want to talk about here a month after the hurricane in Puerto Rico, and two months after the hurricane in Florida, the aftermath is not going so swimmingly because people are not getting the assistance that they need. Now, mind you, this is two months after the hurricane, two months after the hurricane in which people have lost all the food in their freezer because they didn’t have any power.
They’re supposed to get assistance in order to be able to buy food. And if you are living paycheck to paycheck and you don’t have a paycheck, you don’t have any money to buy food and, therefore, the financial assistance from FEMA and the USDA and yet you ought to see the lines, the lines and lines in Miami, in Orlando, in Tampa, in Belle Glade. And then they’re cutting off the lines. And the people that are getting cut out, they’re going without food. So we’ve got a long way to go.
The USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, it’s called DSNAP is supposed to help all of our people recover from losses incurred by Irma by making short-term assistance available. It’s especially important for families that are low income, that don’t have income or they’re not getting a paycheck. And now they’re saddled with unexpected repairs, a storm damaged roof. They spent money evacuating or they lost wages during the storm or they lost power and lost all the food in their freezer. You know, some people do go and buy food in bulk because they can get it cheaper and store it in the freezer. And then bam, it’s all gone because there’s no power.
Well, there were 50,000 people waiting at a center in South Florida, and many were turned away for waiting in the heat for hours and hours. And then the next day it was the same story in another city that I didn’t mention, Delray Beach. And so the people are getting desperate.
I want to thank FEMA for everything that it’s done. I want to thank the Congress for doing the first supplemental in September that was intended originally for Harvey in Texas but along came Irma in Florida. I want to thank the Congress for the additional supplemental that we just passed last night.
But the administration of all these programs for assistance to people, it’s not going so well. So let’s take another example. You get on the phone. You call FEMA. You’re supposed to get a FEMA representative, and you have to wait and wait and wait. So if that’s because FEMA needs more people on a short-term basis to handle the amount of calls, well, FEMA, let’s get it going.
Or what happens if you’re calling because you’ve got to have a FEMA representative come to your house to inspect your house so that you can then get the necessary individual assistance to help you. You’re waiting for assistance as to when a housing inspector can come and visit the home. Once you get through on the telephone and the last time we checked, the expected wait time to get a housing inspector is 45 days. That’s too long for families to wait for an inspector to come because these are Floridians that are stuck living in damaged homes, homes that have gotten wet and, therefore, the mold and the mildew has built up. And they don’t have any place else to go. They don’t have any income that they can go down to one of the air-conditioned hotels, and they’re still wait being for the FEMA inspector to come and inspect their homes so they can get qualified to get the assistance that they in fact are due under the law.
So our people can’t access certain forms of FEMA assistance until the inspection is complete. And I’m told that FEMA has indeed increased the number of housing inspectors on this process has got to be expedited.
Now, this isn’t the only delay that is causing a very serious threat in Florida, a threat to health and to safety. Now FEMA has been very slow to get in manufactured homes, mobile homes. Why? Because a lot of people’s homes and/or mobile homes were so damaged that they can’t go back and live there. So they get temporary assistance. They go into hopefully some air-conditioned place, like an existing apartment complex or, per chance, a hotel. But what if you’re in the Florida Keys? What if you’re in the keys where there are not enough hotels and motels? And, in fact, there are not a lot of rental apartments.
And, oh, by the way, it’s the service industry that is necessary to revive the tourism industry in the keys, as an example, because that’s the lifeblood of the economy, and the service industry has no place in which to live because their trailers are history. I wish I had a picture here to show you just north of Big Pine Key of a mobile home park that I went to. There was not one mobile home that was upright. They were either all on their side or they were upside down. And it is not unusual because these are the Keys.
The hurricane came right off the water, a Cat 4. But FEMA isn’t getting those mobile homes, those manufactured homes, in as temporary assistance. Understand, the example I gave is the Florida Keys. There’s one way in and one way out. But you’ve got to compensate for that. And in the meantime people are suffering and people are hurting. And the red tape just should not stop anyone in this country from having a safe place to live.
And so I urge FEMA to expedite the transporting of these units all over Florida, to Florida communities and filling them up so that Floridians have a place to live that is safe and that is clean.
All right, if it weren’t enough of what’s going on, I say to my friend from New Jersey — if it weren’t enough in Florida, what about Puerto Rico?
You know, right now 80% of the island still, a month after the hurricane, more than a month, 80% of the island still doesn’t have power. I didn’t go into the urbanized parts of San Juan, although I was there and did look around.
I flew back into the mountains, into the little town of Utuado. For two and a half weeks they were cut off. They didn’t have a road to get up there for two and a half weeks. Puerto Rico — would you believe over a month, I say to my friend from Washington, over a month after the hurricane and 30% still do not have potable water? I saw up in Utuado in the mountains, I saw them going up to a pipe coming out of the water that was flowing down through the mountains, this wasn’t necessarily potable water, but it was the only thing they had. And they were lining up with their plastic jars and their plastic buckets.
Hospitals in Puerto Rico are rationing services. They’re foregoing optional operations. They’re making difficult decisions on prioritizing patients because of limited medication, limited facilities, fuel, communications, and power. And dialysis centers are desperate to get the water, the clean-enough water, so that they can process the dialysis for kidney patients.
And so, clearly, more needs to be done also to help the people of Puerto Rico in addition to Florida and all the other states. And I urge my colleagues to remember the plight of Americans trying to put their life together after a major disaster. And so we heard the senator from California making the plea about the wildfires. You’ve heard this senator make the plea for Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. You’ve heard the Texas delegation make the plea for Texas.
We all have to come together in this time of need and pass a robust and comprehensive aid bill. And we hope the White House will be true to its promise, that the additional aid, particularly for agriculture, will be put in the November emergency supplemental. There should be absolutely no ambiguity that the federal government intends to provide all the necessary assistance to make our people whole.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.