Rosa DeLauro Monday returned home from witnessing the wreckage of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico with an immediate task: Make sure 32-year-old Ferdinando Voltaggio has a place to stay after he gets a new kidney.
Voltaggio was among the hundreds of people who fled Puerto Rico to New Haven after the hurricane devastated the island last September.
He has been staying in a hotel room and waiting to receive a new kidney. The beginning of his procedure is scheduled for Tuesday, but he won’t have a hotel room to return to unless U.S. Rep. DeLauro and other concerned legislators are able to reauthorize the Transient Shelter Assistance (TSA) program for hurricane victims. The overall program is scheduled to expire on March 20, but benefits for some people, like Voltaggio, expire on Feb. 1.
That means he would have no place to go to recover from his very serious surgery.
DeLauro spoke about his case and other real-life examples of the ongoing crises here and on the island, at a press briefing Monday morning held at City Hall.
Before she approached the cameras and microphones on City Hall’s second floor, DeLauro briefed members of the city government’s Puerto Rico Evacuee Support Working Group on findings of a fact-finding trip she took last Thursday and Friday to Puerto Rico.
The tour was under the auspices of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Education, and Human services, on which she serves as ranking Democratic member.
Traveling to the cities and the mountain towns, to farms and schools, DeLauro said, she concluded that after a slow start FEMA’s recovery work is “moving along.” The federal government’s eye is on not just “patching a bridge” but fixing infrastructure for the longer term.
That quest will depend essentially on whether a proposed $81 billion supplemental appropriation for FEMA, which passed the House recently, will survive the ongoing negotiations in Congress on the continuing resolution to fund the government.
“The Senate has not yet passed the bill. That’s where the pressure needs to be applied,” she said.
DeLauro was not certain if TSA funding, of the kind that continues to underwrite housing for Voltaggio and about 45 other families in area hotels, is also part of the FEMA supplemental being negotiated, or if it is a separate funding challenge.
She reported that FEMA had pledged that 95 percent of electricity would be restored to Puerto Rico, including the mountain regions, by June. “We’ll hold their feet to the fire,” she said.
She described seeing many “blue tarp” homes on rural parts of the island: dwellings where the roofs were blown off and temporary tarps, visible from visiting helicopters, have turned out to be not so temporary. “They need permanent roofs,” she said.
She described schools where kids don’t attend because they are too traumatized. In other areas, because of closings, some kids have to be on buses at 4:30 in the morning to get to the schools still operating.
“The suicide rate is increasing and mental health concerns” are not being sufficiently attended to, she said
Reauthorization of Medicaid funding, which is also still held up in Congress, is critical as 46 percent of the population of Puerto is on low-income health plan.
Potential Catastrophe Looms
DeLauro reported that the island has an extreme shortage of saline IV bags because the manufacturer is not getting sufficient power to run the factory.
If such gaps aren’t filled and the federal Medicaid funding does not come through, “by early spring Puerto Rico will run out of funding and it’ll be a catastrophe,” she said.
Voltaggio said his wife insisted he leave Puerto Rico after the hurrican go because local hospitals could not stabilize the chemical levels in the pituitary system, a precondition for the kidney operation he needs.
Although the TSA program officially ends on March 20, it ends sooner if FEMA determines that a refugee, like Voltaggio, has a home that is now habitable, reported city emergency management chief Rick Fontana.
Voltaggio said his home was found to be habitable—and thus his TSA funding is being cut off. However, the lobby of his building remains a mess and the elevator is not working.
When he arrived in New Haven on Oct. 7, staff at the city’s designated point of entry, Junta For Progressive Action in Fair Haven, connected him to the Fair Haven Community Health Care and with Yale-New Haven Hospital, where the procedures will be done. The staff found a him a room at the La Quinta hotel, on Long Wharf, underwritten, for now, by TSA funds.
To date, since the first arrivals like Voltaggio in early October, 806 individuals, or approximately 342 families, have been processed welcomed to New haven by JUNTA, according to that group’s director of advocacy and community support, Paula Serrecchia.
The two hotels housing the families — La Quinta and Residence Suites, also on Long Wharf — have reached capacity at 45 households. Others are staying with family members and supporting groups throughout region, Serrecchia reported.
That’s not easy for people with health problems, like Voltaggio, and the elderly, and individuals who don’t normally deal with the cold, don’t know where to get proper medicine, and fine a general culture shock from displacement.
Fair Haven Community Health CEO Suzanne Lagarde said her organization has treated 350 individuals, clocked 938 visits, and formed a team to deal with PTSD and the increasing trauma of this population.
While the fate of the funding of the FEMA supplemental and the TSA program remain in nervous doubt, Lagarde praised DeLauro for already having intervened in the refunding of the Emergency Prescription Assitance Program (EPAP).
“Out of the clear blue” Lagarde said, the program just disappeared on Jan. 3. The stopgap funding for presecriptions is critical for someone like Voltaggio or others arriving with conditions like diabetes and needing drugs like insulin, said Lagarde.
DeLaura was able to get re-unding for that program within two weeks, so that it became operational again on Jan. 18.
Danny Diaz, of the city’s Puerto Rico Evacuee Support Working Group, reported that $130,000 has been raised and used for , among other purposes, four shipments of donated supplies to the island within the past 30 days. Shipped supplies included 200 mattress, 40 refrigerators, 45 stoves.
With elderly and disabled people still sleeping, in some villages, on moldy mattress and in unroofed dwellings, the need continues to be great, he said. He encouraged contributions be sent to ARTE Inc., at this site, which is organizing ongoing relief shipments.