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Coalition of Representatives and Senators In Congress Willing To Help The Virgin Islands and Puerto Is Growing

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ORLANDO — Florida Rep. Darren Soto, with other Congressional Democrats, is pushing for legislation that would hopefully, and finally, give the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico the help they need.

On Tuesday, more than two months after Hurricane Maria and Irma’s eyes passed over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, Soto and Reps. Stacy Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, and Nydia Velázquez, D-New York, announced their plan to introduce disaster relief legislation to accompany a bill unveiled by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and six Democratic cosponsors in the Senate.

Dubbed the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Equitable Rebuild Act, the bills seek to address the mounting humanitarian crises by “mobilizing all necessary resources and assets to restore power, provide clean drinking water and food, safe shelter and access to health care,” and do so without forcing the U.S. territories to accumulate more debt, according to a press release on Sen. Sanders’s website.

Going further, the companion bills, which have been endorsed by 75 organizations, would seek to bridge a path towards not only rebuilding the U.S. territories back to pre-disaster conditions, but also working towards a sustainable future.

“The people of Puerto Rico have been living in a nightmare for far too long,” Soto said in the press release. “I am proud to co-introduce … legislation that will help them get the lights back on and their economies going again. As we look to rebuild the islands, we have an opportunity to become an energy model for the 21st century if we invest right.”

As stated in the press release, the bill will address seven key components to rebuild and move the islands forward:

1) Debt and Privatization: Puerto Rico’s debt must be addressed to ensure the territory can recover with dignity. Congress must also prevent the privatization of public institutions to benefit creditors in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico is struggling with an unsustainable $74.8 billion of debt, much of which is held by Wall Street creditors, with an additional $49 billion in unpaid pension obligations. The territories’ recovery should not add to existing debt.

2) Resilient and Renewable Energy: Instead of simply rebuilding an antiquated, centralized and inefficient system dependent on imported fossil fuels, the bill ensures the electric grids will be rebuilt to be more renewable and resilient, to provide less expensive electricity and create local jobs.

3) Medicaid and Medicare Parity: The health care systems in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were inadequate before the hurricanes made landfall, in large part because they receive far fewer federal dollars compared to states. The bill makes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands eligible for the same Medicare and Medicaid benefits as the rest of America.

4) Rebuild and Improve the VA Hospital and Clinics: Appropriates necessary funds to the VA for veterans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

5) Improve Public Schools, Colleges, and Childcare Facilities: In addition to rebuilding damaged schools and childcare facilities, we must face the fact that many of these facilities were inadequate before the storms hit. Hundreds of public schools in Puerto Rico have been closed because of austerity policies and schools in the Virgin Islands are struggling to prepare students for college and future careers. The bill appropriates necessary funds for services and facilities for public Head Start, elementary, secondary and higher education.

6) Invest in Infrastructure and Spur Economic Development: Underfunded infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands contributed to the severity of the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In addition to rebuilding damaged facilities, the legislation would make significant investments in the islands’ physical infrastructure to spur the local economy and create jobs.

7) Environmental Cleanup: Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have significant environmental contamination related to the hurricanes, prior pollution and a legacy of military bombing exercises on Vieques. The legislation would provide grants to the EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense for environmental remediation.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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