SAN JUAN – The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, said on Friday that he will do everything he can to ensure that Puerto Rico gets all the assistance necessary to recover from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria.
“What we have seen here today confirms that this is first and foremost a humanitarian disaster,” Ryan told reporters in San Juan after he and three other members of Congress took a helicopter tour of the US commonwealth, where the storm is blamed for nearly 50 deaths.
The Wisconsin Republican said that he and his colleagues were stunned by the “widespread devastation” and the “dire conditions” residents are facing.
Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane, knocking out power, water and telecommunications and leaving entire communities cut off due to flooding and blocked roads.
More than three weeks after the storm hit, fewer than 10 percent of Puerto Rican households have electricity.
Congress will ensure that the island receives the resources it needs, Ryan said alongside Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who reiterated that it was in Washington’s interest to create “a stronger Puerto Rico” to avert a massive migration of Puerto Ricans to the US mainland.
The speaker pointed out that the $36.5 billion disaster-relief bill the House passed this week includes a provision making available to Puerto Rico some $4.9 billion in loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
In most cases, FEMA loans end up converted into grants, a more attractive prospect for Puerto Rico, which is already burdened with $70 billion in debt.
The recovery effort will not be limited to short-term fixes, Ryan said.
“We are all in this with each other for the long haul to make sure that this island survives,” the House speaker said, though when asked about possible solutions to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, he said that the matter required further analysis.
Ryan’s delegation arrived a day after President Donald Trump alarmed Puerto Ricans with a tweet.
“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Trump wrote Thursday morning.
Rossello said later Thursday that the White House had assured him the federal government would remain engaged in Puerto Rico for as long as necessary.
Roughly 12,000 US military and civilian personnel are on the ground in Puerto Rico.