How to rebuild Puerto Rico: Rubio asks Trump for expert panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senator Marco Rubio said on Thursday he has urged U.S. President Donald Trump to create a high-level task force to provide ideas and advice for helping Puerto Rico to rebuild after Hurricane Maria, and that the president was receptive to the idea.

Rubio, a Republican from Florida who has been deeply involved in discussions over the response, told Reuters in a telephone interview that the task force could be a sounding board for Trump “as we move beyond the initial recovery phase to the broader long-term recovery phase.”

While the idea was not yet a “concrete plan,” Rubio said he suggested that Trump consider drawing upon experts in business and finance who understand the politics of the U.S. territory and the mainland.

Rubio said he spoke with Trump on Sunday: ”He seemed to like the idea, and said they would follow up and see what that would look like.”

Hurricane Maria, which slammed into Puerto Rico three weeks ago, killed at least 43 people and left much of the Caribbean island without electricity or safe drinking water.

The emergency response and subsequent rebuilding effort is expected to run into the tens of billions of dollars.

Prior to the hurricane, Puerto Rico had already been struggling with a $72 billion debt to creditors, a flight of residents to the U.S. mainland and aging infrastructure, including a decrepit power grid that was incapacitated by the storm.

In a 30-minute interview, Rubio, who visited Puerto Rico on Sept. 25 to survey hurricane damage, said the island’s economy was “shut down” and that Washington faced the difficult task of figuring out how to provide emergency supplies and to move into full-blown rebuilding mode.

“They’re basically three weeks now living in the 19th century. They’re not going to continue to do that,” Rubio said of Puerto Rican residents, who are likely to continue to flee to the mainland United States unless conditions improve.

Reporting By Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bernadette Baum