Rep. Nydia Velazquez was the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress, and she has advocated for the island’s needs throughout her political career. The congresswoman talked to City & State’s Grace Segers about the ongoing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, her problems with the Trump administration, and the recent terrorist attack in New York City. The following is an edited transcript.
C&S: Do you still believe the Trump administration's response has been insufficient in aiding the recovery efforts?
NV: It has been inexcusably inefficient, even after all the criticism that he has invited. And it is all related to the fact that he didn't provide the leadership. They knew that this hurricane was in its track to hit Puerto Rico, and they knew that it would be a catastrophic hurricane making landfall with a vulnerable infrastructure. And they failed, the administration failed to put appropriate assets in place. So the questions are, why was the Comfort, the U.S. Navy hospital ship, not ready to deploy more quickly? Why did the president wait so long before appointing a three-star general to oversee the relief effort? I asked for an aircraft carrier to be deployed immediately, the same way that they deployed off Miami when Hurricane Irma hit Florida. Why were FEMA cost-sharing requirements initially waived only for six months when we explained to the administration that Puerto Rico was running out of liquidity? So, the whole thing is really unacceptable, and all this equated to a very slow, inadequate response.
C&S: Congress recently passed an aid package. Is there anything else that you believe Congress can do?
NV: Definitely. First, what we did, we passed a relief package. And it provided $4.9 billion for its liquidity crisis in the form of a loan. So, is that the type of fair resources that we're going to provide to an island that we know filed for bankruptcy? More loans? But, even with that inefficiency, I made it clear that this was only a first step and much more needs to be done. So, we're waiting for the final assessment from FEMA as to the losses in Puerto Rico. Some insurance companies are throwing numbers that puts the losses up to $95 billion. So, what it means is, we need to pass a recovery relief package that will provide resources for Puerto Rico to start rebuilding.
C&S: Do you think there is enthusiasm in Congress to pass this kind of bill?
NV: This morning we had a meeting, the Democrats. Even on the Republican side, they know that they have to come up with a recovery package, not only for Puerto Rico but also for the other states. The amount of money that we provided in the relief package was $36 billion, but out of that amount, $16 billion is for the flood insurance program. So if you subtract that, it's less than $20 billion not only for Puerto Rico, but also for Texas and Florida. It's not going to be enough. We need to rebuild the power grid, and we have to do it in a way that will withstand the next natural disaster. In that respect, we hear from both Republicans and Democrats that they will want to provide resources, but making sure that the power grid is not only restored, but rebuilt to last.
C&S: What is your reaction to the terrorist attack in Manhattan on Oct. 31?
NV: Of course the first thing is, my heart breaks for the victims and the families, and to see that many tourists lost their lives, who came to New York to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary of ending school. It's just heartbreaking. Look, New York City has always been a shining example of our nation's openness, tolerance and diversity. And New York has always embraced immigrants who come to this country in pursuit of their dreams with their families. Unfortunately, the fact that New York City embraced diversity, that it welcomes people who come to New York, makes us a target for some of these bad actors that are out there. So what I would caution the president and everybody else is that we are victims of our open society, but we are also admired around the world because of that. So we need to continue to be a shining example of those values, and taking every step and putting in place every tool that will provide the safety and protection that every person deserves in New York and everywhere. And I reject, of course, the statement made by the president this morning (Nov. 1) and his announcement that he is ending the diversity lottery question. This guy who committed this crime was radicalized here. So we have to be very cautious about how we're going to proceed in terms of using this as a way of creating division among ourselves and in terms of other people with other nationalities.
C&S: What is your reaction to the indictments of Trump campaign officials?
NV: Look, all these issues are deeply troubling and go to the heart of our democratic process. The fact that Manafort, and Gates, and Papadopoulos were colluding with Russia to undermine our democratic way of life is very troubling. And I just want to say this – I was the first member of Congress to write to Loretta Lynch back in December asking her to appoint a special counsel. So now that we have Bob Mueller in place – and he's doing an incredible job – I want to give him the opportunity to make the case and to finish his work. I suspect that the next question that you may ask is, “Should we impeach the president?” Well, I want to – I asked for the special counsel to appointed. It is in place, he’s doing an incredible job, I’m waiting for him to finish his job, and then we will consider all the facts. We need to see where the facts go. And these indictments are likely the first step in a series of actions. So I want to see the outcome of the investigation that he’s conducting.