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Democrats escalate feud with White House over Puerto Rico hurricane probe

The government's response to Maria has faced ongoing scrutiny, even as disaster funding more broadly has fallen victim to partisanship.

A Hurricane Maria destroyed and abandoned house  in the Carola neighborhood on September 19, 2018. CREDIT: Angel Valentin/Getty Images
A Hurricane Maria destroyed and abandoned house in the Carola neighborhood on September 19, 2018. CREDIT: Angel Valentin/Getty Images

With this year’s hurricane season in full swing, House Democrats are ramping up a probe into the Trump administration’s response to the 2017 season’s impacts on Puerto Rico, arguing that the White House has refused to release documents. The lawmakers are now threatening retaliation if the administration doesn’t act.

That latest escalation between Democratic lawmakers and President Donald Trump comes against an increasingly partisan backdrop. Disasters have seen a major uptick in intensity in recent years across virtually every part of the country. But some areas have received more attention than others. Meanwhile, impacted communities say that congressional feuding over relief funding has had severe repercussions for those that are still waiting for aid.

Members of the House Oversight Committee sent a letter on July 1 to Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, slamming the White House’s stalling on releasing documents relating to the 2017 hurricane season’s impact on Puerto Rico. This comes after all Democratic members of the committee had already requested in a May 6 letter that the White House turn over those documents, to which they say they received no response.

That silence from the White House has prompted Democrats to now “seek compulsory process,” Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) and Environment Subcommittee Chair Harley Rouda (D-CA) wrote in the letter this week.

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“This request is based on a bipartisan precedent that should not be controversial,” the lawmakers wrote, noting that the Bush administration produced around 18,000 documents relating to Hurricane Katrina when asked.

Noting that the request comes in connection to an event linked to thousands of deaths — the official death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is just under 3,000 — the lawmakers slammed the Trump administration’s lack of response and laid out retaliatory measures.

“Since it appears that the Trump Administration failed in at least some respects to learn the lessons from Hurricane Katrina, our Committee is considering legislative action to improve the laws governing the preplanning of emergency contracts, clarify the timing and transparency of chain-of-command decision-making, and provide additional mechanisms for sharing information on the ground in a timely and effective manner,” they wrote.

Cummings and Rouda gave Mulvaney until July 10 to comply with the committee’s request for documents, which also extends to the administration’s response to 2017 hurricanes that hit the U.S. Virgin Islands. “If you continue to withhold these documents, the Committee will have no choice but to obtain these documents through alternative means,” they concluded.

In a statement to ThinkProgress, Rouda emphasized that Democrats feel they are on a tight timeline, one drawn out by the White House.

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“As climate change continues to increase the intensity of natural disasters, it is imperative that we gain a better understanding of how the federal government prepares for and responds to emergencies like the 2017 hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” the congressman said. “We requested these documents not only to hold the Administration accountable for their actions but to help determine proper funding and policy for future disaster preparation and response.”

The Trump administration has faced two years of fallout over its response to Hurricane Maria, which sparked the longest blackout in U.S. history in Puerto Rico. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admitted in a 2018 internal report that it had been short thousands of staffers when the hurricane hit and was largely unprepared for the scale of the disaster. And a 2018 investigation by Politico found that the government had favored recovery efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey over Puerto Rico.

Even two years later, many Puerto Ricans told ThinkProgress that, as of May, the island has still not fully recovered, a state of stasis they say stems largely from government inaction on every level, along with a pre-existing financial crisis.

But the president has repeatedly laid the blame for the damage on Puerto Rico itself. At the time of the hurricane, Trump argued that Maria was not a “real catastrophe like [Hurricane] Katrina,” and downplayed its impacts.

For the past two years, he has also pushed back against additional aid for the island, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May 2017, only a few months before Maria. Trump has claimed that Puerto Rico has already received some $91 billion in aid, a number that is factually inaccurate — by numerous counts, the amount distributed to the island is closer to $13 billion.

The feud between the island and the White House has bled into disaster relief efforts across the country. Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are among states still recovering from hurricanes over the past two years, while California is reeling from a deadly wildfire spree in 2018. Broad swathes of the Midwest and South have also suffered extreme flooding this year, which has claimed lives and dealt a heavy blow to the economy. But a $19 billion relief package stalled in Congress for six months this year over resistance from the White House, with Trump arguing against additional aid for Puerto Rico.

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The bill ultimately passed last month but the process has left many impacted communities disenchanted with Washington’s response to their struggles. It has also underscored the lengthy nature of recovery. Just prior to June 1, the official beginning of Atlantic hurricane season, relief workers and community members in various parts of the country told ThinkProgress that they are facing multi-year recovery efforts.

That process, they say, is weighed down by partisan infighting, something underscored by the latest sparring between Democratic lawmakers and the White House. And all the while, disasters like wildfires and hurricanes are worsening, a trend climate scientists have connected to global warming.

While the 2018 hurricane season is expected to be average, forecasters have cautioned that even one major storm could be catastrophic — especially for areas still in recovery, like Puerto Rico.

This piece has been updated to include a comment from Rep. Rouda.