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US islands ask federal govt for help in wake of disasters

February 26, 2019 GMT

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Leaders of U.S. territories including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands asked the federal government on Tuesday for more help in their efforts to recover from a deadly 2017 hurricane season, saying federal funds have been denied or released too slowly to help rebuild schools, roads and hospitals as another hurricane season approaches.

Governors for both Caribbean territories told a Senate committee in Washington, D.C. that the U.S. government is no longer fully funding debris removal, demolition of unsafe structures and other projects even though much work remains after the strikes by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

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“We must rebuild quickly, and can ill afford not to be fully prepared as another hurricane season looms. We have nowhere else to run,” said Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which received a direct hit from both Category 5 storms in September 2017.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who leads the U.S. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which oversees affairs in U.S. territories, said the federal government wants to ensure the money is being used wisely but acknowledged the challenges the islands are facing.

“It was just one continuing disaster after another,” she said.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Puerto Rico is running out of options after a failed appeal in which his administration sought to have the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency fully fund certain recovery work, including debris removal that is still continuing. Maria hit the island as a Category 4 storm and is estimated to have caused more than $100 billion in damage.

He also criticized the U.S. government for its slow disbursement of hurricane recovery funds, saying only 45 permanent work projects have been approved in the 17 months after the hurricanes, compared with the more than 13,000 such projects approved in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina.

“The money is just not flowing through,” he said. “They are putting bureaucratic obstacles.”

Meanwhile, Bryan said crews have not yet repaired hospitals in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including the sole one in St. Croix, which has to be completely rebuilt. He also noted that classes are still being held in temporary units.

He rejected a federal government estimate that the hurricane recovery would take five to 10 years.

“We don’t have that luxury of time,” he said, adding that several projects are delayed because contractors have not been paid. “Some challenges we face are exacerbated by federal policies, which are within the power of Congress to change.”

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Both Bryan and Rossello also asked that Congress extend temporary Medicaid relief issued after the hurricanes. Bryan said the Virgin Islands cannot afford to match part of the funding after Sept. 30, when the relief ends. Meanwhile, Rossello said Puerto Rico will not have enough federal funds to provide benefits for 1.3 million Medicaid participants after that deadline. He also requested additional funds for a nutritional assistance program, saying the money issued after the hurricanes ends in March. If no money is received, he said nearly 230,000 participants will either lose benefits or see a reduction of them.

The U.S. House has approved an additional $600 million for the nutritional assistance program, but the Senate has not voted on it, and the White House recently said the amount is “excessive and unnecessary.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said legislators are frustrated with what he described as a lack of meaningful progress following the 2017 hurricane season.

“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how much work remains,” he said.

The hearing was held just three months before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.