PANAMA CITY, Panama — Puerto Rico on Friday was still coming to grips with the damage left behind by Hurricane Irma as authorities scrambled to restore electricity to hospitals, businesses and hundreds of thousands of residents — all at a time when the cash-strapped island has been struggling to pay for even basic services.
“Puerto Rico didn’t get the eye of the hurricane, but the damages in the northeastern part are extensive and scary,” said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C.
To complicate matters, Puerto Rico may have to compete for emergency funding against Harvey-hit Texas and, potentially, an Irma-stricken Florida.
Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory of 3.4 million residents, doesn’t have a vote in Congress, but Mercader said Florida lawmakers including Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson have said they will consider the island’s recovery needs when they ask for additional emergency funding.
“They have empathy for what’s happening in Puerto Rico and understand the risk that Irma represented for Puerto Rico,” Mercader said.
Mercader discounted the notion that the island’s recovery needs might get overshadowed by Florida and Texas, saying the White House had been in routine communication with Gov. Ricardo Rossello and has repeatedly pledged its support.
The U.S. Senate has approved $15 billion in Harvey relief, and lawmakers have warned that a similar amount may be needed in the wake of Irma.
Irma had been on track to slam Puerto Rico dead on Wednesday — but the storm system was eventually pushed northward, sparing the island the worst.
The electrical grid seemed to take the brunt of the storm as overgrown trees and debris — blamed on lack of maintenance from budget cutbacks — downed power lines. As of late Thursday, 63 percent of the island’s 1.5 million power clients were still without electricity. And with roads still closed by debris, officials have warned that it could take weeks — or even months — to completely reconnect the island.
Even though Puerto Rico didn’t take a direct hit, the hurricane proved that “it’s no joke,” Mercader said.
“My advice for the people of Florida is to prepare themselves,” he said. “And if they live in an area that might be in the path of the hurricane, they need to seek shelter elsewhere.”
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