After surveying the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan indicated yesterday that, in the long run, a detailed analysis will be needed to identify the best course to follow in order to make the reconstruction of Puerto Rico feasible.
In an exclusive interview with El Nuevo Día, and after a few hours tour by land and air to various points in Puerto Rico, Ryan reiterated his commitment to attend the island, which was devastated by the passage of Cyclone Maria last September 20 .
According to Ryan, in the solution to be articulated for the Island, the Board will play a key role and will require a new approach.
"Absolutely," Ryan replied when El Nuevo Día asked him if he envisions any role for that federal entity in the recovery program that will be articulated for Puerto Rico.
The Board was created under federal law PROMESA about a year ago, when a bipartisan congressional process resulted in the creation of a legal mechanism similar to that of bankruptcy so that Puerto Rico could renegotiate its public debt, estimated at about $ 74 billion.
"The hurricane represents a change of game," said the Republican congressman for the state of Wisconsin.
"It is clear that looking to the future, the Board will have to take a constructive role to ensure that the assistance provided in the future is well implemented and it will have to help ensure that it is designed in the right way," he added.
Ryan indicated that, at present, the federal government will remain focused on alleviating the humanitarian crisis experienced by Puerto Ricans and, therefore, in the legislation to allocate funds to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which was approved last Thursday, about $ 4.7 billion were included for a line of credit to Puerto Rico.
The allocation still depends on the federal Senate but, if approved, it would allow the Puerto Rican government to access cash to continue paying obligations such as payroll and the pensions of some 130,000 government retirees.
This was due to the collapse of tax collection, since the damage caused by Hurricane Maria disrupted the operations of the government and the private sector.
Ryan's visit came about 23 days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with winds of 155 miles per hour, leaving nearly 30 inches of rain in some parts of the Island.
In numbers, the estimates of losses associated with the hurricane are diverse. While an analysis of Estudios Técnicos (Technical Studies) points to losses of $ 20 billion, a Moody's report raises the figure to almost $ 90 billion.
Moody´s said this week that Hurricane Maria destroyed over 100,000 homes.
Ryan visited the Island along with a bipartisan delegation to tour by air over some of the areas devastated by the cyclone. The president of the Republican Conference, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington); the chair of the Appropriations Committee, Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen (New Jersey); and Democratic spokeswoman on the Appropriations Committee, Nita Lowey (New York) were part of the delegation.
Minutes before talking to El Nuevo Día, at a press conference at the Government's Operations Center in Miramar, which lasted about 12 minutes, the Republican leader admitted that the federal government has an obligation to help rebuild the devastated infrastructure of the Island in the long term.
Ryan praised the work of volunteers, military and government officials who collaborate in the emergency stage.
"In my name -and all those who accompany me- our heart is with Puerto Rico. What we have seen here today (yesterday), confirms the humanitarian disaster that the Island is facing. However -and beyond that situation-, we came across a local population that works together to rebuild communities," expressed Ryan.
Ryan seemed to make a clear commitment towards the rebuilding of the infrastructure that, due to the inability of the local government to properly administrate it, ended up destroyed by the cyclone.
"When you are building in the short term, you are building in the long term. When you raise an electric line, you do it in the long run. If we are going to put a power line, we are going to put one that can stand the winds of a hurricane. It makes no sense to put temporary patches on issues that have a long-term effect," answered Ryan to questions from a US media reporter about the government's responsibility for long-term reconstruction.
Devastation, live and in color
"It is very difficult to appreciate the extent of the devastation without having seen it with your own eyes," Ryan told El Nuevo Día.
The congressional leader explained that, before his visit, he had seen on television the images of the destruction caused by the cyclone and had received reports from Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, as well as briefings about the situation on the Island.
"It is very difficult to understand the extent of the devastation until you can actually see it," he reiterated.
Ryan's endorsement of Puerto Rico's reconstruction seemed to counterbalance President Donald J. Trump's –also a Republican- verbal charge against American citizens of Puerto Rico through Twitter.
Last Thursday, Trump said the assistance provided by some 10,000 federal officials and thousands of other military officers to the Island cannot stay "forever." His comments, which White House officials tried to soften, earned him criticism of local leadership and tough op-eds from leading US newspapers. That may have motivated Trump's comments yesterday stating that “The wonderful people of Puerto Rico, with their unmatched spirit, know how bad things were before the Hs. I will always be with them!”
To El Nuevo Día questions about how his word support would translate into concrete actions for Puerto Ricans, Ryan indicated that, in the long term, it will require "all" to identify how a response would be articulated for the Island, which will require analysis, some investment and discussion.
It is in that context that Ryan seems to see the Board playing a key role.
"The hurricane, due to its nature, has changed everything and I think that it will change the way the Board created by PROMESA works, to make sure we are all going in the same direction," said Ryan, without clarifying whether this could require to amend the statute that created the Board.
Could such future actions include parity in Medicaid?
"I do not want to get into that now," Ryan said, reiterating that the federal government's efforts are focused on addressing "the crisis" that now is being suffered in Puerto Rico.
Gonzalez will not lower the guard
Ryan spoke with El Nuevo Día after Resident Commissioner Gonzalez coordinated a tour that included direct meetings with mayors and citizens, and an air tour of several of the most devastated areas, including the municipalities of Jayuya, Villalba, Lares and Utuado.
According to González, the best way to get the message from Puerto Rico to Congress is to ensure that more congressmen and advisors in the legislative body see firsthand the effects of the cyclone and the response that has been provided.
The Resident Commissioner indicated that in the coming weeks, she will coordinate more visits of congressional delegations in order to continue joining supporters to the recovery plan that Puerto Rico needs.
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