Maria’s toll in Puerto Rico hits home for House budget chief

Residents at La Perla community in Old San Juan cling to their battered residences after the scourge of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. The island territory of more than 3 million U.S. citizens is reeling in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Five days after Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez has yet to hear from his family members there, and Gov. Charlie Baker has been unable to connect with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

“The apocalypse hit Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico’s screaming for help and people are worried that their calls won’t be heard,” Sánchez told reporters after a meeting between the governor and legislative leaders on Monday. He said, “Unfortunately this isn’t garnering the attention that it should deserve right now.”

Washed out roads and a collapsed communications and electrical infrastructure have left both Baker and Sánchez somewhat in the dark about the situation on the ground on the island that weathered two successive hurricanes this month.

A friend called Sánchez, he said, and the friend told him his son was heading to the town where Sánchez’s father was from, which Sánchez said was first settled in the 1500s and still has dirt roads.

“I asked that they could take a look in particular places, but it’s hard in Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico’s not like here in Massachusetts. People live in the mountains and the hills and in little hamlets,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat said.

On Monday, President Donald Trump, who last week described Puerto Rico as “absolutely obliterated,” sent Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long and Department of Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert to Puerto Rico, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. She said, “We’ve done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico.”

Nearly 7,000 federal employees were in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands over the weekend, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said in a blog post that emergency officials are working with other federal agencies.

The Department of Energy is working on power restoration; the Department of Health and Human Services has sent a disaster medical assistance team; the Department of Transportation has opened airports to make way for relief flights; and the Army Corps of Engineers has supplied generators, according to FEMA. relaxing the Jones Act restriction requiring that shipping directly between U.S. ports must be done by vessels that were built in the U.S., owned by U.S. citizens and are registered in the U.S.

The federal law should be altered or repealed, said Sánchez, and Baker said that was a “worthwhile thing to explore and advocate for” to make it easier to get goods to the island.

The law is intended to bolster the U.S. Merchant Marine, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration. Baker said it can slow shipments.

Using a federal clearinghouse for mutual aid requests, Baker said Massachusetts state government is ready to respond in any way to assist the three U.S. areas swamped by late-summer hurricanes – Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida.

“The United States citizens of Puerto Rico are calling for help, and they’re crying for help, and the federal government has an obligation to the United States citizens of Puerto Rico. Period,” Sánchez said.

Baker has been unable to gauge the federal response to Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico so far and unable to speak with Rosselló – whose wife is a friend of First Lady Lauren Baker, he said.

SHNS Video: Gov. Baker, Chairman Sánchez on Puerto Rico hurricane damage

“For me it’s hard to tell on the Puerto Rico side simply because there’s so little information that’s currently available from there. But I would certainly expect and hope that the response of the federal government to Puerto Rico – which is a U.S. commonwealth – would be the same or more significant given the nature of the hit that they took,” Baker said.

Officials on the island have had “great collaboration and communication” with federal emergency agencies, but they need more help from the federal government, Rosselló said, according to the Washington Post. The island was torn up by back-to-back hurricanes and the power grid has been completely destroyed along with other infrastructure, Rosselló said. Maria hit the island early Wednesday, less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma.

Setti Warren, a Democrat running for governor, suggested Monday that Baker should send the National Guard to Puerto Rico “as soon as possible,” and said U.S. Navy resources should also be deployed.

“Puerto Rico is America, and no part of our country should feel ignored in a time of crisis this severe,” said Warren, a U.S. Navy Reserves veteran whose grandfather was from the southern part of the island. “I am grateful to the men and women of Massachusetts Urban Search and Rescue Task Force who have been deployed to Puerto Rico, but with millions of Americans suffering, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to help.”

The best way to help Puerto Rico now is to send cash donations to the Red Cross and other credible aid organizations, Baker said, when asked about Warren’s suggestions.

“Nobody’s suggested from there that sending the National Guard from Massachusetts would be helpful. What most of them have said is donations,” Baker said.

On Friday, the governor emailed state employees, advising them to donate to the Red Cross, organizations listed in National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and to check on the wellbeing of family and friends through the Red Cross’s “safe and well” website.

“The serious weather events over the last few weeks have left many of us feeling like we want to do something to help,” Baker wrote in the Friday afternoon email. “Massachusetts is the proud home of one of the largest groups of Puerto Rican American communities in the country.”

On Monday, Baker tweeted that people should consider supporting United for Puerto Rico, which is led by First Lady Beatriz Rosselló and aims to help people harmed by the two hurricanes.

Warren criticized what he said was a lack of response from President Trump, who was embroiled in controversy with the National Football League and the National Basketball Association over the weekend.

“It is shameful that President Trump has remained silent on the crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico,” said Warren, who is the mayor of Newton. “Maybe he doesn’t think of Puerto Ricans as ‘real’ Americans, or maybe he’s too busy picking fights on Twitter, but for me and thousands of Massachusetts residents this is personal. My grandfather grew up in Ponce and more than a quarter of a million people in Massachusetts are of Puerto Rican descent.”

The White House says Trump has been in contact with the governor of Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico is in very, very, very tough shape,” the president said at an event in New York last Thursday. “Their electric grid is destroyed. It wasn’t in good shape to start off with, but their electrical grid is totally destroyed and so many other things. We we’re starting the process now and we’ll work work with the governor and the people of Puerto Rico. But Puerto Rico is a whole different category in many ways – in many ways.”