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BROOKLYN MEDIA GROUP/Photos by Jaime DeJesus
BROOKLYN MEDIA GROUP/Photos by Jaime DeJesus
Congressmember Nydia Velazquez hosts Federal Disaster Update in Sunset Park.

Congressmember Nydia Velazquez hosted a town hall to discuss the relief effort in the aftermath of category 4 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, October 17 at P.S. 1, 309 47th Street.

Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department Housing and Urban Development (HUD), elected officials, relief organizations and more, updated residents on the current status and what can be done moving forward for the island.

“In 100 years, Puerto Rico didn’t experience a category 4 hurricane,” Velazquez said. “Like so many people throughout the United States, I didn’t have any type of communication with my family in Puerto Rico. I was there for one day and I didn’t even have the time to go see my family. To this day, I have three brothers that I haven’t been able to talk to.”

She stressed the damage done is more dire than reported by the media and federal government. “The level of devastation when you look at the images on television, it really doesn’t give you the real picture and we can’t measure this devastation based on the number of casualties,” she explained. “To say that because not that many people died, that will qualify it as a success story, is just beyond me. ”

Velazquez also questioned the death toll. “Some reports are telling us that the number of deaths could go up to 450. We need to know the truth.” For that reason, she went on, she had “request[ed] an investigation. “But it’s not about how many people died as a result of the hurricane,” she added. “It’s about how many people could die as a result of a poor response from the federal government.”

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Velazquez also criticized the slow response.  “I’ve asked for an aircraft carrier to bring helicopters because the most remote areas were the most impacted,” she said. “Most roads were destroyed. We lost a lot of bridges. People were trapped in their little hometowns. They didn’t have water or electricity and today 84 percent of the people of Puerto Rico don’t have electricity.”

Velazquez claimed it took two days of her raising the issue to the EPA and other agencies for trucks to be sent to distribute water where it was needed.

The current rainy season is also hurting the relief effort. “Yesterday in Caguas and other areas, there were floods and people were basically forced to leave their homes again,” she said. “250,000 homes have either been damaged or destroyed.”

Velazquez also responded to statements by President Donald Trump about the relief effort. “I know the president said that they can’t stay in Puerto Rico for many years,” she said. “Well FEMA has been in New Orleans for 10 years. What I said is in New York, in Texas, in Puerto Rico, we must provide for the safety for those who are struggling today.

“Speaker Ryan went to Puerto Rico two weeks ago, and he said that his heart goes out to the people of Puerto Rico and that what he had seen confirms that this is first and foremost a humanitarian disaster,” she said. “We need more than words.”

Lai Sun Yee, acting deputy regional administrator of FEMA, told the group that it, “Is working to meet the critical priorities of the governor of Puerto Rico and this includes power and water restoration operations and medical operations. We are maintaining temporary power to critical infrastructures in medical facilities and working on debris clearance.”

“Thanks for holding us to task and being tough on us,” said Lynne Patton, regional administrator for HUD Region II. “I’m also here on behalf of the president of the United States. I want to make it clear the full force of the federal government is working towards making progress and recovery. Region II is going to play a critical role in the relocation efforts of those receiving shelter from Puerto Rico and I want to say the most critical message that HUD has to everyone in this room that you must register with FEMA for individual assistance.”

Attendees also expressed their sadness. “I’ve lived all my life in Puerto Rico and I haven’t seen this degree of devastation,” said one woman in tears, who had just arrived in New York. “I live behind the beach and the water was over my knee when I opened the door from my house. Everything came in. Why do we have to wait so long for to get help?”

On October 12, according to Velazquez, a disaster relief package was passed that included $18 billion that will go to FEMA to continue its work on the island.

“We need to continue to support community-based organizations,” she added. “If we can’t get help from people in power, then we have to do grass roots work to make sure there will be a day where Puerto Rico will be whole.”

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