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Rep. Nydia Velázquez Urges White House For More Help In Puerto Rico

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Puerto Rico has a long road ahead of it after Hurricane Maria hit the island hard last week. Much of the island is still without power. Drinking water is scarce. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. And long-term, the island's infrastructure will need to be extensively rebuilt. Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez is making the case in Washington for more help from the federal government to the U.S. territory. She represents part of New York City, has a large Puerto Rican constituency. She herself is Puerto Rican, and she joins me now. Welcome.

NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I understand you accompanied a relief mission to the island soon after Maria hit. What did you see on the ground there?

VELAZQUEZ: Total devastation. This is a Puerto Rico that I didn't recognize - the flooding, the streets, houses under water, people begging for water, no food, isolated areas very hard to reach. My family, my own family - I went to Puerto Rico; I was unable to reach my family. It wasn't until yesterday that one of my sisters reached out to me the day before yesterday.

CHANG: Wow. I want to play a little bit of tape for you. This is something President Trump said this morning about how the federal government has been responding.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have shipped massive amounts of food and water and supplies to Puerto Rico, and we are continuing to do it on an hourly basis.

CHANG: Massive amounts of food and supplies - has that response been enough?

VELAZQUEZ: This was a massive natural disaster. It requires a massive, comprehensive plan. So we need the president to provide a top-notch person from the Army, a two-, three-, four-star general to be able to oversee and to manage an interagency response. Look. There is food sitting on warehouses in Puerto Rico. There's no diesel. There's no gasoline. There are not enough trucks. There's not enough power to distribute the food and water My theory is that people were not paying attention to the severity of this disaster that was evolving and that now is turning into a humanitarian crisis.

CHANG: So President Trump says he will visit Puerto Rico a week from today. You have said this situation could turn into his Katrina. What did you mean by that?

VELAZQUEZ: Well, for six days now, everyone has been pleading for the government to have a more proactive role in providing the manpower, in providing the resources that is needed for basic, basic needs. The kind of response that the federal government put together is not proportional to the type of crisis that they are facing as part of this natural disaster.

CHANG: Let's say that Puerto Rico does not end up getting the additional aid that you and your colleagues are asking for right now. What do you see happening to the island?

VELAZQUEZ: It's going to collapse. What you're going to have is a massive migration to the mainland. When people lose hope, when people see no signs that the federal government is saying to them, we are here, and we are going to step up to the plate to make sure that Puerto Rico is made whole again, you're going to have a massive migration to Florida, to Ohio, to New York and to every part of the country. That's what is going to happen.

CHANG: That was Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. After our conversation this afternoon, FEMA administrator Brock Long told reporters the federal government will be expanding its footprint in Puerto Rico. He says more than 10 ships and barges, including a hospital ship, will be sent over in the next 48 hours as well as thousands of federal troops to help re-establish communications on the island and to aid in the distribution of fuel, food and water. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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