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Puerto Rico will receive more than $8 billion in Hurricane Maria recovery money withheld during former President Donald Trump’s tenure and have “onerous” restrictions removed over how it can access and spend a larger pool of disaster relief money, the White House said on Monday.
The combined moves are the latest actions from President Joe Biden’s administration to broadly reset the federal government’s relationship with the territory, releasing billions of dollars of financial aid years after it had been approved by Congress.
Marcia Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in a statement, “The actions taken by HUD today will unlock access to funds Puerto Rico needs to recover from past disasters and build resilience to future storms, while ensuring transparency and accountability.”
Of the roughly $67 billion in aid Congress assigned in response to the 2017 storm, about $17.8 billion, or less than a third of the amount, has been disbursed.
The money being released comes from the agency’s Community Development Block Grant Mitigation Program, designed to help the island build resiliency against future disasters.
The island’s Gov. Pedro Pierluisi welcomed the development.
‘Without a doubt, this is great news for PR,” said Pierluisi on Twitter. “This will allow the [local housing department] to streamline the work and invest effectively in the recovery of our Island.”
Puerto Rico Secretary of Housing William Rodríguez told the Miami Herald that HUD aid will go towards a “multiplicity of programs,” including addressing housing in areas prone to flooding.
“We will be working on infrastructure projects for Puerto Rico’s economic development and to make a more resilient Puerto Rico,” he said.
The federal housing agency named an internal monitor to supervise the island’s emergency aid in January 2020. The Biden administration Monday announced it would eliminate the requirement for a review by a financial monitor. It will also do away with incremental grant obligations and additional oversight from the island’s financial oversight board.
In February, $1.3 billion in federal money were approved, also from the same HUD program. Another $4.9 billion had restrictions loosened. One official from the federal agency then described the development to the Miami Herald as “resetting the relationship” between Puerto Rico and Washington. In March, the U.S. Department of Education released nearly $1 billion in federal funds to assist the island’s schools in responding to recent emergencies, including the pandemic.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the actions to release the aid and remove restrictions are the “latest in an ongoing whole-of-government effort to support the island’s recovery and renewal.”
A string of compounding natural disasters has devastated Puerto Rico over the last few years. Hurricane Maria in Sept. 2017 killed thousands, destroyed critical infrastructure and wrought an estimated $90 billion in damage. Then came a sequence of earthquakes in the southwest of the island in Dec. 2019 that left many without a home or living in damaged houses. The coronavirus, which has killed over 2,000 people in Puerto Rico, soon followed.
Trump—and former HUD Secretary Ben Carson— repeatedly expressed concerns over possible mismanagement of aid within the island’s local government. The former president called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth,” and his administration established strict safeguards on disaster money.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has been working to reverse the Trump-era policies, cutting red tape in the way Puerto Rico accesses relief aid. The Biden campaign plan for Puerto Rico committed to ordering HUD and other federal agencies to collaborate with the island’s government so that federal funding is “deployed efficiently.”
Fudge, echoing the president’s promises, added that the administration is “committed to an ongoing partnership with Puerto Rico to empower the island’s communities and help them build back better.”