Recently, I observed that we have made some progress in our response to disasters like the intense hurricanes of 2017. I noted that coastal states like Maryland and Florida have undertaken important first steps toward making our communities more resilient to the damage caused by these horrifying storms.
I also acknowledged that the Trump Administration, building on the work of President Obama, deserves some credit for its response to the destruction in Texas and Florida this year.
However, after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with devastating consequences, the federal relief effort engendered criticism.
News reports revealed that, two weeks after Hurricane Maria split Puerto Rico apart, basic aid was arriving in San Juan, but families in more remote towns were still receiving only meager portions. Inadequately equipped local leaders were struggling to transport life-preserving water and supplies from regional drop-off points to their storm-ravaged towns.
The President and local officials offered starkly contrasting assessments. While President Trump applauded the federal relief effort, the Mayor of San Juan was pleading that Americans were dying due to an inadequate response.
Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, who turned around the Bush administration’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, declared that the Trump administration was underutilizing the military, exacerbating the slow delivery of aid and the removal of debris. By that point in time, he observed, he would have moved 50,000 troops to Puerto Rico.
These were the circumstances on September 27 when I joined House armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith of Washington, Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York and 143 of our colleagues in demanding that the Department of Defense deploy additional resources to aid recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
I should emphasize that this was not “foreign aid” that we were demanding. Rather, we declared, we must aid the 3.5 million American citizens who are struggling to survive in Puerto Rico – and the additional 106,000 Americans suffering in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“With winds up to 160 mph,” we asserted, “Hurricane Maria devastated these islands, caused significant power outages, destroyed telecommunications infrastructure, and thereby paralyzed the region….”
Federal efforts to date have been insufficient to address the severity of the situation, we concluded, urging the President to further mobilize the Department of Defense to immediately deploy additional assets in support of Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island recovery efforts.
It appears that our advocacy is having some impact, in both the Trump Administration and the Congress. Lives are being saved and preserved, although far more needs to be done.
Now, in the wake of all of this devastation, our nation must take a hard look at the challenges of rebuilding in all of the jurisdictions shattered by this year’s hurricanes. The costs will be significant, even for a nation as wealthy as our own.
In Puerto Rico, we are being informed, the power grid has been smashed, 80 percent of the crops have been wiped out, 40 percent of the residents need drinkable water and communications remain largely inoperable.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, circumstances are just as dire – even as the government also faces the threat of austerity measures comparable to those already limiting Puerto Rico’s recovery.
I will strongly support massive federal assistance to these ravished American jurisdictions. The first role of any government is to care for her people in times of need.
As we move forward, however, we must also be clear-headed about one inescapable fact. The best evidence available to date is that the destructive power of these terrible hurricanes was not a historical anomaly.
Rather, we must plan and rebuild on the assumption that these extraordinarily destructive storms are the new normal for our country.
To be clear, scientific analysis does not confirm that the devastating hurricanes of this year were caused by climate change. What the best science has concluded, however, is this.
Climate-related factors like warming oceans, atmospheric moisture and rising sea levels are making the hurricanes that threaten our nation larger, more intense, longer lasting and more destructive than they otherwise would be.
Elected officials at the federal, state, territorial and local levels must take notice and act accordingly. We must put ideology aside and act prudently on the basis of the future that climate science is now predicting for our country.
We must plan, strengthen our building and land use codes and create sizable “rainy-day” funding accounts that are adequate for what are now the predictable dangers that we will have to overcome in the future.
Our military must be prepared to respond to these attacks by nature – and be deployed – just as they would be if we were threatened by a foreign power.
Americans are a resilient people. Their government must become more resilient as well.
Acting in a prudent and bipartisan fashion, we must prepare our nation to survive – even in the eye of the storm.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.