1 year after hurricanes, senators call for hearing on health, education in Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands
File-Joe Raedle/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — One year after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Senator Elizabeth Warren and seven other senators are renewing calls for Senate hearings over the dire states of health and education infrastructure on the islands.
“Hurricane Maria killed about 3,000 American citizens, had a crippling impact on health and education systems in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, had an impact all around the country — and yet, there hasn’t been a single hearing,” Warren, D-Mass., said Tuesday, using her time at a committee hearing on a different education bill passed in 2015 to raise the issues.
“When disasters hit, they don’t affect only the communities that are directly hit by the eye of the storm,” Warren said citing the more than 3,200 displaced Puerto Rican students who are now enrolled in Massachusetts schools.
Warren and seven other senators also sent a letter exclusively obtained by ABC News to Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday to discuss the “critical challenges in their health and educational systems” that include hundreds of closed schools, hospital closures and a severe shortage of doctors –- with further budget cuts expected.
“We have a responsibility to exercise our oversight responsibilities to ensure that our fellow U.S. citizens struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and Maria – the deadliest natural disaster in recent U.S. history — receive the resources and assistance they need to recover from these disasters and to rebuild in a long-term, sustainable way,” the letter stated.
Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Tina Smith of Minnesota joined Warren in sending Tuesday’s letter.
ABC News reached out to Senator Alexander’s office for comment.
Warren and eight senators previously requested a hearing in the HELP committee in December 2017, on the same matters, but no hearing was scheduled.
“Given the extent of the damage inflicted upon both territories, as well as the important roles of the departments under this committee’s jurisdiction in ongoing hurricane relief efforts, we believe such hearings would be an important part of the Committee’s oversight related to hurricane recovery,” the senators wrote at the time.
Alexis Ramos, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Department of Education told ABC News that since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, 257 schools have closed after thousands of students left the island and its education system.
Five schools remain closed on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Keva Muller, a spokesperson for the Department of Education told ABC News. Those schools are expected to reopen in temporary structures on Thursday. She said the number of students enrolled is “growing, but it’s still not at pre-hurricane,” levels.
“A lot of students are returning back to the territory,” Muller said, but the department will not know the final enrollment number until all the schools open and have their first day back.
Tuesday’s letter noted that the health care system in Puerto Rico “faces substantial challenges,” citing “an exodus of doctors from the island” and a “mental health crisis because so many residents were traumatized by the catastrophe.”
“We must find out what went wrong in the preparation for and recovery from this disaster, and make sure that federal and state agencies are better prepared for the next natural disaster,” the letter concluded.
During her speech in the Senate committee Tuesday, Warren said, “We hope you will consider this latest request and that we will have a hearing on the devastating impact on Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Island and the rest of the country because of this deadly hurricane.”
After she spoke, Alexander said that he had received the letter sent by the group of senators, but did not say if the committee would hold a hearing on the issues.
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