WASHINGTON — Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing for a trip to the Virgin Islands to assess the damage there and draw attention to the plight of residents still struggling in the wake of two major hurricanes.
“We think it’s important for people not only who are on the ground to see the cavalry coming, but it’s important for us to go down and independently assess the needs of the people,’’ Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the caucus, said Thursday before a House vote on a disaster aid bill.
The House approved a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week when it’s back in session.
Caucus members supported the bill.
But Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat who represents the Virgin Islands and a caucus member, called the aid package “inadequate for the needs of the Virgin Islands, and I believe, inadequate for the needs of Puerto Rico and so many other areas.’’
“There is massive devastation that the people of the Virgin Islands are experiencing right now, support that is not being given to them, attention that they are not receiving that they should be receiving,’’ Plaskett said Wednesday before the House vote.
The Virgin Islands, which about 76 percent black, was hard hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Plaskett described dire conditions, including struggling hospitals, schools closures and a shortage of power and essential supplies. She said the federal government needs to do more to help.
“It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to provide for the territories,’’ she said. “This is the time for Congress to do the right thing, to support the territories in an adequate fashion so that we can turn disaster into resilience, so that we can be a better island … We’re not looking for handouts, we’re looking for our fair share.’’
Plaskett said the region will need much more than the $5 billion Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has requested.
The administration and federal emergency officials have come under fire for what some lawmakers and advocates call their slow response to the crisis in the U.S. territories.
Federal officials have defended their response saying the efforts, particularly in Puerto Rico, have been hampered by getting supplies and resources to the islands.
“We’re slowly starting to make progress every day," Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters Monday.
President Trump said Friday he has met with governors of states and territories impacted by the hurricanes, including Mapp.
Trump mistakenly referred to Mapp as a president in a speech Friday at the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.
“We also stand with the millions of people who have suffered from the massive fires, which are right now raging in California and the catastrophic hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands,’’ Trump said.
Trump has visited Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico after the hurricanes. Caucus members called for Trump to also visit the Virgin Islands, but said the trip should be more than a photo op.
Vice President Pence visited the Virgin Islands earlier this month.
Richmond said the caucus has asked House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to approve a congressional delegation trip to the Virgin Islands. Under House rules, the speaker must approve such as trip.
Ryan’s office said the request is still pending, but said House policy has been that a member of the majority party must lead a congressional delegation trip and it must be bipartisan.
Ryan led a daylong bipartisan trip to Puerto Rico Friday.
Caucus members said the administration and federal officials should also focus more attention and resources on the Virgin Islands.
“We thank FEMA for all that they’ve done and all that has been deployed already, but it’s an all-hands-on-deck endeavor that must be underway,’’ said Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y. “No American citizen should be asked to wait and endure these conditions with the level of resources we all know our federal government is capable of providing.”
Clarke, a member of the caucus, said the Virgin Islands is reliant on tourism, which she called "down and out.’’
Providing temporary housing is also a critical issue, Richmond said. He said federal emergency officials can turn to cruise ships or other vessels to house first responders and others who could help rebuild the island’s infrastructure.
“We don’t get too many opportunities to get it right and so many lives are affected you have to think outside the box,'' he said. "But more importantly you have to bring all the resources that you have.’’