House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had long been planning to convene a press conference Friday to talk about the ongoing recovery needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands a year after two hurricanes hit the American territories. She didn’t know President Donald Trump would fire off tweets Thursday accusing Democrats of inflating the hurricane’s death toll.
But the president choosing to “add salt to the wounds,” as Pelosi described it, only underscored her message that the federal response to Hurricane Maria has been woefully inadequate.
The attitude from the Trump administration toward the territories still reeling from Hurricanes Irma and Maria is unacceptable, she said.
“We have a moral obligation to do better,” she said.
Her comment extends beyond Trump’s Thursday tweets — in which he disagreed that the death toll from the hurricanes in Puerto Rico is more than 3,000 and argued that Democrats inflated that number to make him look bad — to other issues like the administration’s failure to deliver money that Congress appropriated to help with the recovery.
Pelosi on Trump’s Puerto Rico Comments: "Think About That, Pray Over That"
Pelosi led a congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in late July to assess the ongoing recovery needs. The delegation stayed in touch over the August recess and met last week to discuss actions Congress could take to help.
Among the items that still need addressed is a rebuilding of the power grids. Pelosi said there’s a strong interest there in renewable energy and lessening dependence on fossil fuels, which are more expensive and contribute to the heat on the ground.
Three Democrats who were part of the delegation, Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, spoke at the press conference alongside Pelosi.
“Release the money, release the Medicaid money, release the community block grant money,” Jackson Lee said of funding Congress appropriated earlier this year to help with the hurricane recovery efforts. “The administration is holding up those dollars.”
The Texas Democrat also expressed frustration that the administration transferred money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a Department of Homeland Security reprogramming move this summer.
FEMA is understaffed and underfunded as it is, Jackson Lee argued. She plans to introduce legislation to overhaul FEMA, with plans for developing separate teams to focus on rescue and recovery.
Velázquez, who was born in Puerto Rico, called for Republicans to allow a vote on her bill to establish a 9/11 style commission to investigate the administration’s response to the hurricanes.
She called Trump’s tweet about the death toll shameful, noting that whether the deaths were caused by medical equipment like dialysis machines not working, extreme heat or the spike in suicide rates, they’re all directly attributable to the administration’s response to the hurricanes.
“Your administration created a humanitarian crisis through inadequate preparation and an incompetent response,” Velázquez said, speaking as if to Trump.
“We pray that the administration has learned from their mistakes and that the response in the Carolinas will be better,” she added, referring to the area in which Hurricane Florence is landing.
All four Democrats offered their thoughts and prayers for the residents of those areas who might be affected by Florence.
A lesson learned from Hurricanes Maria and Irma should be that “the risk of life remain well after the wins and rains subside,” Plaskett said.
She noted Trump never even visited the Virgin Islands and described the territory’s continued struggle to recover, noting that many residents still don’t have roofs on their homes and 10 schools are still not reopened.
“We are completely forgotten not only by this president but by those in the media as well,” she said.
Plaskett also panned Trump’s death toll comments, saying, “That tweet affected 3,000 families that are mourning the loss of those individuals.”
While the Democrats did attack Trump directly, Pelosi acknowledged that there’s sometimes danger in doing so because of his inclination to respond with irresponsible and often inaccurate tweets.
“We’re dealing with a sensitive instrument in the White House,” she said. “And you don’t want to tilt it one way or another on any given day.”