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Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón on Puerto Rico's Fiona damage, 5 years after Maria

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much of Puerto Rico remains without power or clean water. They are living in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, which struck just five years after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico is not a state, so it does not have a state delegation in Congress, but it is allowed a nonvoting representative. And she is Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who is a member of the Republican Party.

Welcome to the program.

JENNIFFER GONZALEZ-COLON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: And we'll note, you're in Washington. You're not in San Juan or elsewhere in Puerto Rico. But from what you have learned, how does the damage on the island compare to Hurricane Maria?

GONZALEZ-COLON: They're two complete different stories. The Hurricane Maria just ravaged the island for almost a complete day with hurricane forces of a Category 5. Hurricane Fiona was a Category 1 hurricane that brought a lot of water. And that saturated the soil. And that's the reason you may have a lot of damages in roads, bridges that were washed away by the floods. So the devastation is mostly in the south part - southwestern part of the island and the center part of the island. In comparison to Hurricane Maria, that was a complete devastation for the whole island. We are pretty much short yet to identify how much is going to be the economic impact of the disaster. As we speak, municipalities and the government of Puerto Rico are still doing the assessment of those damages. The government of Puerto Rico requested a national declaration of disaster that needs to be approved by the president in order to receive public assistance and the resources from FEMA.

INSKEEP: This was a test of infrastructure that was rebuilt after Maria. As best you can tell, how has it held up?

GONZALEZ-COLON: Well, there are several other areas, like a bridge that was connected in the town of Utuado. There was a temporary bridge that was put there because the communities were isolated and incommunicated (ph) after Hurricane Maria. And one of those bridges went away. I mean, it was washed away by the floods. So we're still waiting for a lot of the permanent work for those facilities in many towns on the island - that we're expected to be beginning to process in the next year. So let's see how the impact of this hurricane is going to delay a lot of the permanent work of reconstruction by Hurricane Irma and Maria.

Remember that we still got $11.5 billion allocated to the island for the reconstruction of the power grid that are not being used yet. So I think this is the most challenging part of the reconstruction. Yesterday we just have the anniversary of five year after the hurricane, but a lot of reconstruction is still needed. And now on top of that, we got Hurricane Fiona, and yet the hurricane season is not over yet.

INSKEEP: Representative Gonzalez-Colon, earlier this week, I posted something about 3.2 million Puerto Ricans without power. And some people instantly replied words to the effect of give them statehood, give them statehood. They saw a connection between Puerto Rico's colonial status and the status of the infrastructure. Is there a connection between one and the other?

GONZALEZ-COLON: Definitely is a direct connection, and the reason for that is that Puerto Rico, as a territory of the United States, needs to comply with a lot of federal laws. But we do not receive the same resources as a state. And I will give you just one example. Health care, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security income - those are programs that apply completely different to Puerto Rico. And because we don't have enough local resources to match those federal programs, we cannot access some of them. And those are just a few examples. We can tell you about more than 47 federal laws that treat Puerto Rico differently. And that means that this economic situation on the island, where you have a 47% of poverty rate - it's higher than any other state.

Once Puerto Rico become a state, that will allow the island to normalize our economy, like it happened with Hawaii and with Alaska many, many years ago. And I think this is the right thing to do. I mean, I am certainly sure that Puerto Rico is going to become a state. The question is, how long is it going to take for the island to achieve that equality and be treated as first-class American citizens?

INSKEEP: I know that you're hoping for a vote this year on what would effectively be a statehood bill or would set up a process that could lead to statehood or another result. Do you have the votes to get that through at least the House of Representatives?

GONZALEZ-COLON: I think - this is the first time ever in the history of Congress that there is a bipartisan bill that would allow a self-determination process for Puerto Rico that already passed a committee of - the Natural Resources Committee in the House. So it's expected to be in the floor of the House at the end of this year, and you will have Republican votes. So it's a bipartisan bill. And I really expect, and the people of Puerto Rico are expecting, to have that bill approved.

INSKEEP: You just said you will have Republican votes. Republicans have been perceived historically as opposing statehood for Puerto Rico. We could give lots of motivations, but the simple partisan one is that they presume that there are Democratic votes on - in Puerto Rico. But you believe there is significant support within your party?

GONZALEZ-COLON: I mean, it is in the Republican platform. Since 1954, the Republican platform includes favoring and supporting statehood for the island. You got op-eds written by Ronald Reagan and many other Republican presidents supporting statehood. So it is part of the policy of the GOP. So I totally believe that there's a lot of miseducation and misconception about whether Puerto Rico is going to become a Democrat or a Republican state. I think it's going to be a purple one. It will depend on parties and candidates. But yes, we are very conservative in many other issues.

INSKEEP: And just in a few seconds that are left, do you believe the substantial body of Puerto Rican voters would favor statehood as opposed to independence or some other choice?

GONZALEZ-COLON: Oh, definitely. And we voted for that in the last three plebiscites and elections. So people of Puerto Rico are ready - are now ready to support statehood, so that's going to happen on the island.

INSKEEP: Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon is a member of the Republican Party and Puerto Rico's representative in Congress. Thanks so much.

GONZALEZ-COLON: Good morning, and thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 20, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled Jenniffer González-Colón's first name as Jennifer.