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We must unite in facing tragedy
October 18, 2017
By U.S. Congressman Raul Labrador

As most of you know, I was born in Puerto Rico and lived there until I was 13. After that, my mom and I moved to Las Vegas, where we lived for the next four years. While I’ve spent my adult life in Idaho and raised my family here, I will always have strong connections to Puerto Rico and Las Vegas.

They will always have a special place in my heart. So you can imagine how I felt after both places were beset my horrible tragedy: Hurricane Maria and the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

There are important similarities between both events. They both showed the heart and bravery of first-responders in times of crisis. They also showed how everyday Americans can come together and help each other in the worst of circumstances.

Sadly, they also showed how Democrat politicians, liberal activists and the biased media exploit tragedies for partisan gain, using a false “us-versus-them” mentality to score political points, at a time when reflection, unity and compassion are essential.

This is such an important issue, I will be devoting two e-newsletters to it. The first, today, will be about Puerto Rico, while the second will be about Vegas.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the 3.4 million residents of the island are suffering from the worst hurricane to strike the commonwealth in 85 years. During the storm, electricity and municipal water supplies were knocked out across Puerto Rico.

Even now, almost a month later, about 85 percent of the island remains without electrical power, while about 40 percent lack access to drinkable water.

Those impacted include my own family and friends. I reached out to them, in the wake of the storm, and worked behind the scenes to provide support and help in any way possible. And last Thursday, I voted for, and the House approved a “supplemental” bill to make sure Puerto Rico has funds to aid in the recovery.

While many partisans and media outlets accuse the Trump Administration of not doing enough, they fail to recognize the unique logistical challenges of distributing goods on a mountainous island ringed by a single Interstate.

Colonel Michael Valle, an Air Force officer who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is leading relief efforts, said claims that the federal response is inadequate are “just not true.” Valle told the Huffington Post, “As a Puerto Rican, I can tell you that the problem has nothing to do with the U.S. military, FEMA, or the DoD (Department of Defense). The aid is getting to Puerto Rico. The problem is distribution.”

Speaking during the early recovery efforts, Valle noted a shortage of truck drivers to transport goods waiting at ports. Impassable roads, lack of fuel, communications outages and the need for drivers to care for their own families contributed to the shortfall.

“We need to keep doing what we’re doing,” Valle said. “It’s going to take the resource of time.”

Jenniffer González-Colón, who is the non-voting representative of Puerto Rico in Congress, has made similar points.

While clearly disagreeing with some of the president’s rhetoric, she told USA Today, “Everything that the president said that he was going to send to the island, it’s getting there. The resources are there. The help is there … He instructed all his cabinet members to treat Puerto Rico as a state, in terms of this hurricane. I mean, that kind of instruction is important to have access to all those programs.”

In contrast to the false media narrative, the President has sent all the resources and assistance he said he was going to send to the island and instructed his cabinet to treat the island as they would treat a state in terms of access to all relief programs. That is an unprecedented level of assistance.

As Puerto Rico rebuilds, we need to be positive and constructive. That’s why it was so disappointing to see San Juan’s liberal mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, exploit the “us-versus-them” mentality of her party’s base and the media. She took repeated jabs at President Trump, telling him “you are killing us with the inefficiency” and calling him the “Hater in Chief.”

She also went on TV wearing a T-shirt with the needlessly-provocative words, “Help us, we are dying.” She has become a media darling with a dangerously deceptive message about the relief efforts.

Representative Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat, went further, saying the Trump Administration was doing a “disgraceful job.”

In fact, Gutiérrez said he was angry that private sector and charitable responses from Christian and other relief organizations were better than the government’s response. That is the twisted thinking of a politician. In a situation like this, the government’s role should be to supplement private sector and charitable organizations, not to replace them.

We should be thankful for the work of private sector groups and charities; we should never demean them, like Gutiérrez did.

The media’s amplification of Mayor Cruz and Representative Gutiérrez’s claims have many in Puerto Rico believing their government is uncaring, despite the most robust disaster response the island has ever seen. The Democrats’ politicization of every aspect of American life doesn’t do the victims of these tragedies any good. In fact, it distracts from getting them help and leads to a sense of hopelessness.

The truth is that the massive federal response began on September 17, three days before the storm hit, with FEMA and other federal personnel in place in Puerto Rico. The day after Maria’s September 20 landfall, the USS Kearsage and USS Oak Hill were supporting search and rescue flights, and food, water, generators and other supplies were being distributed.

On September 22, 7,000 federal personnel were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. By September 26, more than 10,000 were providing aid, according to FEMA. A full array of federal agencies is participating in the recovery.

The military alone has 13,600 personnel responding to Maria, including 6,000 National Guardsmen and women from 21 states.

The Pentagon reports impressive progress. Sixty-five of 67 hospitals are now open; 64 percent of the population has cellular service; and 78 percent of gas stations are open.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is still a lot of work remaining to be done. What is happening in Puerto Rico is a genuine humanitarian crisis and some parts of the island are in dire straits.

Nine of 11 major roads and bridges were washed out by the storm and will need to be rebuilt. Some communities might be without power for six months. Doctors are seeing a growing number of patients with conjunctivitis and gastritis brought on by contaminated water and poor hygiene.

The extent of the damage and the final injury count and death toll won’t be known for some time.

But we must remember in times like these that we are all Americans. We must unite in the face of tragedy, stop pointing fingers and comfort the afflicted.
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