Puerto Rico marks 1 year since Maria with song and sadness
By DANICA COTO
Friday, September 21
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Clapping and raising their hands to the sky, hundreds of people clad in white gathered at an 18th-century fort in the Puerto Rican capital on Thursday to remember the thousands who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as the U.S. territory struggles to recover one year after the Category 4 storm hit.
Religious leaders and government officials recalled how Puerto Rico was ravaged by the storm that killed an estimated 2,975 people and caused more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.
Tens of thousands remain without adequate shelter or reliable electrical power, a sad fact that Gov. Ricardo Rossello noted on Thursday.
“After that catastrophic experience, we acknowledge how complex and difficult it is to prepare for a hurricane of that magnitude and fury,” Rosello said. “The best tribute we can give these people, these brothers that we’ve lost, is to build a better Puerto Rico for their sons, their grandsons and their families.”
While the U.S. government has invested billions of dollars to help clean up and repair the U.S. territory, much work remains. Major power outages are still being reported, tens of thousands of insurance claims are still pending and nearly 60,000 homes still have temporary roofs unable to withstand a Category 1 hurricane.
“I think it’s inexplicable,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general, told The Associated Press during a visit to the island Thursday. “There’s no justifiable reason I can see for this gross level of negligence.”
Across the island, people marked the one-year anniversary with gatherings large and small, solemn and anger-tinged — and at times, even hopeful.
In the coastal fishing and farming village of Yabucoa, the strains of one of Puerto Rico’s most beloved songs filled the air at 6:15 a.m., the exact moment the storm made landfall there one year ago.
Tarps still covered many homes that have yet to be rebuilt in the town of 37,000, even as the nostalgic strains of “Amanecer Borincano” — “Puerto Rican Dawn” — resonated at the spot where Maria first unleashed its fury.
“I am the light of the morning that illuminates new paths,” a choir sang as dozens of local officials and residents gathered there. “I am the son of palm trees, of fields and rivers.”
In San Juan, the crowd of worshippers gathered at the 230-year-old San Cristobal fort sang and prayed along with pastors and musicians on stage, with music echoing through the fort’s heavy walls as the sun slowly sank into the sea behind them.
Pastor Elder Gonzalez said he and other volunteers who flew to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to help were shocked at what he saw from up high.
“To see the island of enchantment was a deep and painful experience,” he said. “No one on the plane said a word.”
Government officials argue that many changes have been made to better prepare Puerto Rico for future storms, but they acknowledge that significant obstacles remain.
Jose Ortiz, director of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, told reporters that 20 percent of repairs made to the power grid need to be redone. He said crews didn’t have access to the best materials at the time or were forced to rely on temporary fixes, such as using trees as makeshift power polls after Maria destroyed up to 75 percent of transmission lines.
In addition, municipal officials have complained that reconstruction efforts are too slow. Ariel Soto, assistant to the mayor of the mountain town of Morovis, said that 220 families there remain without a proper roof.
“We’re still waiting for help,” he said. “This hit us hard.”
In San Juan, among those still living under a blue tarp during the peak of hurricane season was Sixta Gladys Pena, a 72-year-old community leader.
“You worry, because you think it’s going to fly off like it did before,” she said. “We’ve lost an entire year and nothing has been resolved. You feel powerless.”
On Thursday, Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced in San Juan that $1.5 billion was being released to Puerto Rico as part of the overall $20 billion pledged for rebuilding, the largest in the agency’s history.
Officials said the priority is to help people still living under tarps, as well as those in low- and middle-income housing. The money will be used to repair and rebuild homes, relocate people and help them obtain property titles if needed.
“The path forward is challenging and will be measured not in months, but really in years,” Carson said.
In recent weeks, Puerto Ricans have become increasingly angry and frustrated as President Donald Trump touted what he said was a “fantastic” response to Hurricane Maria, calling it an “unsung success” as he denied the official death toll without presenting any evidence.
On Thursday, Trump issued a one-sentence statement on the one-year anniversary of Maria. “We stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before,” it said.
Nivia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old retiree whose uncle died a week after Maria, is among those disgruntled by Trump’s comments, as well as by videos of rescue crews responding to Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.
“They saved five dogs that were drowning,” she said of the rescue effort after Florence hit, adding that she feels Puerto Rico didn’t get the same treatment. “That hits you.”
Like many, Rodriguez hoped that after Thursday, she would no longer be bombarded by photos and videos that make her feel like she’s reliving Hurricane Maria.
“It’s too much,” she said.
But others felt that Maria’s tragic legacy still needs to be acknowledged, even long after the anniversary has passed. Among them was a group of artists unveiling an exhibition called simply, “6:15 A.M.”
Artist Omar Banuchi, who organized the exhibit, said he was reluctant at first, in part because he didn’t know how to approach the subject. “It’s something that affected all of us and keeps affecting us,” he said.
He said the exhibition walks a fine line, with some paintings showing beautiful landscapes alongside trailers set up by Puerto Rico’s forensics institute as part of the effort to try to identify the bodies of those who perished in the storm. There also will be live music that will incorporate sounds of the hurricane hitting the island.
“The point is for people to have a good time,” Banuchi said. “But there will be certain uncomfortable moments. … Maria is still a difficult topic.”
For more of AP’s coverage on the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, go to: https://apnews.com/tag/HurricaneMaria’sToll
Board finalizes a Puerto Rico debt deal for $17B in savings
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances has finalized a debt-restructuring deal that represents nearly a quarter of the U.S. territory’s $70 billion public debt load.
The board said Friday that the deal will be presented next month to a federal judge assigned to Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case. Officials said the deal represents more than $17 billion in debt service savings.
The agreement involves several groups including those that hold Puerto Rico sales tax bonds. The board said those who hold general obligation bond debt also support the agreement, which economists say could indicate an upcoming deal with them.
Puerto Rico is in a 12-year recession and still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which cause more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.
Opinion: Preserving Corporate Handouts Is Not the Answer for Vulnerable Republicans
By Andrew F. Quinlan
An animal is most dangerous when cornered, as are politicians facing tough re-election campaigns if we’re to judge by reports that Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, is preparing legislation to prevent the electric vehicle tax credit from phasing out as intended. The Republican majority is certainly in jeopardy as the GOP faces a daunting election environment, but that shouldn’t become an excuse for embracing corporate handouts.
Along with a lot of other wasteful spending, the package of bills passed in response to the financial crisis in 2008 provided purchasers of electric passenger vehicles with up to $7,500 in federal tax benefits, and many states have subsequently added more benefits. Initially, the credit applied only to the first 250,000 electric vehicles, but as part of the Obama stimulus it was expanded to cover the first 200,000 vehicles for each manufacturer.
But now even that limitation is in jeopardy and, as so often is the case, a government program intended to last a limited time is in danger of being extended into perpetuity. That the effort might be carried out under the watch of the party claiming to prefer smaller government merely adds insult to injury.
Heller’s reason for pursuing the issue is obvious. Tesla’s Gigafactory 1, which manufactures lithium-ion batteries, is in Nevada, and Tesla has just crossed the 200,000 EV threshold. Tax benefits for Tesla customers will be phasing out over the next year, and that will obviously be bad for Tesla’s bottom line.
Keeping the gravy flowing to in-state businesses is probably good politics for a senator in a close election. And for Republicans as a whole, anything that helps keep a colleague in office could be the difference between keeping their congressional majority or watching Democrats take power after November’s election.
Unfortunately, EV tax credits aren’t similarly good as policy. Instead, they represent one of many policies that subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes.
Recent research by Dr. Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows that 79 percent of EV tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000. Asking struggling Americans to subsidize the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest is perverse at any time, but it’s particularly egregious to continue doing so when the national debt just hit $21 trillion.
Voters also shouldn’t be fooled by the promise of large environmental benefits. Modern internal combustion engines emit very little pollution compared to older models. Electric vehicles are also only as clean as the electricity that powers them, which in the United States primarily comes from fossil fuels. And since all personal vehicles in the United States account for approximately 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, even an influx of electric vehicles into the market would have a negligible effect on potential climate change, not that Americans are flocking to electrics even with the tax incentives in place.
But ultimately this is not about whether electric or internal combustion engines are better. The issue should be whether politicians or consumers are best situated to render that judgment.
Once all the myths are stripped away, the only reason left for extending EV tax credits is electoral advancement through corporate welfare. But while sacrificing their principles to support corporate handouts, and despite the cost to taxpayers, in the hopes of preserving a vulnerable Senate seat might seem a fair bargain for Republicans. If they did a better job of matching their rhetoric with actual fiscal discipline, then they probably wouldn’t be facing such an electoral backlash in the first place.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andrew F. Quinlan is the co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
New evacuations ordered because of Florence flooding
By ALAN SUDERMAN and ALEX DEROSIER
Friday, September 21
WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — A new round of evacuations was ordered in South Carolina as the trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricane Florence meanders to the sea, raising river levels and threatening more destruction.
With the crisis slowly moving to South Carolina, emergency managers on Friday ordered about 500 people to flee homes along the Lynches River. The National Weather Service said the river could reach record flood levels late Saturday or early Sunday, and shelters are open.
Officials downstream sounded dire alarms, pointing out the property destruction and environmental disasters left in Florence’s wake.
“Although the winds are gone and the rain is not falling, the water is still there and the worst is still to come in the Pee Dee,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Friday, referring to the eastern part of the state.
Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway warned the area may see a flood like it has never seen before. “We’re at the end of the line of all waters to come down,” he said.
In North Carolina, where about 100 people were evacuated by boat and air after the Cape Fear River breached a levee and flooded the town of Kelly on Thursday night, a familiar story was unfolding as many places that flooded in Hurricane Matthew in 2016 were once again inundated.
Two years ago, flooding ruined the baseboards and carpet of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Spring Lake. The congregation rebuilt, This year, water from the Little River water broke the windows, leaving the pews a jumbled mess and soaked Bibles and hymn books on the floor.
“I’m so sad just thinking about all the work we put in. My gut is turning up,” church member Dennis DeLong said. “We put a lot of heart and soul into putting it back up.”
Gov. McMaster estimated damage from the flood in his state at $1.2 billion in a letter that says the flooding will be the worst disaster in the state’s modern history. McMaster asked congressional leaders to hurry federal aid.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he knows the damage in his state will add up to billions of dollars, but said with the effects on the storm ongoing, there was no way to make a more accurate estimate.
Duke Energy said a dam containing a large lake at Wilmington power plant had been breached by floodwaters from Florence, and it was possible that coal ash from an adjacent dump was flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center said it was monitoring four areas in the Atlantic for signs of a new tropical weather threat. One was off the coast of the Carolinas with a chance of drifting toward the coast.
About 55,000 homes and businesses remain without power after Florence, nearly all in North Carolina, and down from a high of more than 900,000 in three states.
Florence is blamed for at least 42 deaths in the Carolinas and Virginia, including that of an 81-year-old whose body was found in a submerged pickup truck in South Carolina. Well over half the dead were killed were in vehicles.
Potential environmental problems remained. Aside from the Duke Energy breach, state-owned utility Santee Cooper in South Carolina is placing an inflatable dam around a coal ash pond near Conway, saying the extra 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) should be enough to keep floodwaters out. Officials warned human, hog and other animal waste were mixing in with floodwaters in the Carolinas.
In Wilmington, things kept creeping back closer to normal in the state’s largest coastal city. Officials announced the end of a curfew and the resumption of regular trash pickup.
But they said access to the city of 120,000 was still limited and asked people who evacuated to wait a few more days. They also warned people to not get caught off guard as rivers that briefly receded were periodically rising back.
The storm continues to severely hamper travel. Parts of the main north-south route on the East coast, Interstate 95, and the main road to Wilmington, Interstate 40, remain flooded and will likely be closed at least until nearly the end of September, North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said.
More than a thousand other roads from major highways to neighborhood lanes are closed in the Carolinas, officials said. Some of them have been washed out entirely.
The flood has been giving so much warning to Horry County, South Carolina, that officials published a detailed map of places that flooded in 2016 and warned those same places were going underwater again. One man had time to build a 6-foot-high (1.8-meter) dirt berm around his house.
The Waccamaw River has started its slow rise in the city of 23,000, and forecasters expect it to swell more than 3 feet (0.90 meters) above the previous record crest by Tuesday while still rising. Some areas could stay underwater for weeks, forecasters warned.
Derosier reported from Spring Lake. Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew, Martha Waggoner and Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh; Jeffrey Collins and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Michael Biesecker in Washington and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.
For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes.
From the Cleveland Plain Dealer
New federal spending bill contains Ohio goodies
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives last week approved a $147 billion spending package for next year to fund military construction, energy and water projects as well as spending for veterans and congressional operations.
The package passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday by a lopsided margin with support from both Ohio Senators, Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown.
On Thursday, it passed the House of Representatives by a 377 to 20 margin with backing from all Ohio members of Congress, except for Miami County GOP Rep. Warren Davidson, who thought it spent too much money, and Wadsworth GOP Rep. Jim Renacci, who missed the vote to attend a fundraiser for his U.S. Senate campaign against Brown.
Renacci submitted a statement to the Congressional Record that said he backed the bill because of its “critical funding for a number of Northeast Ohio priorities.”
Other Ohio legislators said they were pleased it would include the following projects:
The bill contains money to fund dredging so boats can navigate Cleveland harbor, and language to block the Army Corps of Engineers from dumping the material it dredges from the channel into Lake Erie.
The Army Corps has been engaged in a long dispute with the state of Ohio over disposal of the sediment. The federal entity responsible for harbor dredging contends the material could safely be dumped in Lake Erie, but the state wants it put in a dedicated disposal facility because it fears industrial contamination in the sediment might pollute the lake.
A statement from Portman called the Cleveland harbor project “vital to all of Ohio.”
“I’m glad this language to protect Lake Erie was included in the conference report and I will continue to use every tool available to make sure both the City of Cleveland’s water supply and Lake Erie’s ecosystem is protected,” Portman said.
The bill also includes language that would require the Army Corps to release its long-awaited Brandon Road Study on ways to prevent voracious Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes and threatening its ecosystem by crowding out native fish.
The carp imported from Asia in the 1960s have spread through the Mississippi River water system. An adult silver carp was recently found just nine miles from Lake Michigan.
In a speech on the U.S. House of Representatives floor, Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur said she was grateful that the bill prioritized addressing “the Asian carp threat to our freshwater Great Lakes ecosystem, as well as for funding to keep our Great Lakes ports open to shippers.”
The bill includes $7.4 millon to construct a multipurpose machine gun range at the Ohio National Guard’s Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center, as well as $8.8 million in upgrades to ensure the Youngstown Air Reserve Station’s main gate meets safety requirements.
“The men and women serving our country at Camp Ravenna and at Youngstown Air Reserve Station deserve the best tools and facilities available as they train for future missions,” said a statement from Brown. “This investment will make critical upgrades to those facilities and will provide important support for those who have sworn to protect us.”
It also contains $61 million to expand the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in the Dayton area.
“The work done at NASIC is not only vital to our local economy, but also critical to our national security,” said a statement on the money from Dayton-area GOP Rep. Mike Turner. “This project cannot afford to be delayed by burdensome red tape, and I am proud that today’s bill allows for swift availability of these funds.”
The bill includes $400 million for cleanup at the Portsmouth Gaseous Gas Diffusion Plant. Soil and groundwater at the former uranium enrichment facility are contaminated with a variety of hazardous materials.
“Cleanup at the Piketon plant is a priority, as workers continue their efforts to finish the project and ready the site for new investment,” said a statement from Brown. “This funding will ensure cleanup can continue and workers remain on the job.”
The Appalachian Regional Commission, which helps Ohio and 12 other states stimulate local economies, provide job training and support local infrastructure needs, gets $165 million from the bill.
“While the Appalachian Regional Commission has already done so much for Ohio, we know there is plenty of work yet to do,” said a statement from Brown. “This key investment will help connect Ohioans with jobs, strengthen local infrastructure, and provide greater educational and economic opportunities for the region.”
The bill provided around $2 billion for Veterans Administration infrastructure updates, as well as a $10 million pilot program to finance construction at veterans service organizations that would enhance their delivery of health and wellness services. Niles-area Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan says he fought for and secured the pilot program to provide hospice care tailored to the unique end-of-life care needs of combat veterans.
The legislation provides $348 million for veterans’ opioid treatment and prevention programs, and $52 million to continue to implement opioid safety initiatives outlined as part of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, as well as to develop programs aimed at ensuring that non-VA providers treating veterans comply with VA opioid safety standards.
(New federal spending bill contains Ohio goodies. Sabrina Eaton. Cleveland Plain Dealer. September 17, 2018.)