Under Mounting Pressure, Trump Administration Finally Releases Disaster Aid to Puerto Rico

Peter Wade

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Almost $16 billion of the $20 billion that was allocated for disaster recovery for Puerto Rico following two hurricanes in 2017 was finally released this week by the Trump administration.

According to NPR, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had withheld funds, claiming concerns of alleged mismanagement and corruption. The funds had been approved by Congress more than a year ago and were supposed to be released in September. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) accused the administration of applying a double-standard: “Why is Puerto Rico always subjected to different standards when it comes to this administration?” she said.

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Announcing the release of funds, a senior HUD official released a statement that read, “Now that a full financial monitoring team is assembled and active, we can move forward with confidence that these disaster recovery funds will reach those who need them the most.” But it is still unknown exactly when the funds will reach the U.S. territory, which is now in even more desperate need following earthquakes that hit the island last week.

Just because the funds were released by HUD, however, it does not guarantee that they will reach Puerto Rico. There are strings attached to the $16 billion in aid. Puerto Rico will need to submit budget plans to a fiscal-control board, according to a federal mandate that will track the allocation of the funds. Additionally, the island will have to strengthen its property-registration database. And, it can’t use any of the above funds to improve its electrical grid because a separate $2 billion of unreleased funds are allocated for that purpose. Finally, Puerto Rico will not be able to pay workers on federal projects the $15-per-hour minimum wage on the island.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has maligned the territory and its inhabitants, who are U.S. citizens and who have suffered extreme damages to infrastructure from hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. He called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on Earth” and said its politicians were “either incompetent or corrupt” in a tweet this past August. And in 2018, the president said the death count from Hurricane Maria was exaggerated “to make me look as bad as possible.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, announced an additional $3.4 billion emergency spending bill Thursday to assist with education, rebuilding roads and other infrastructure, as well as to provide for other needs such as housing.

“There is no justifiable reason for this petty and egregious treatment of the people of Puerto Rico, and we should not laud these simple steps forward amidst a barrage of unjustifiable delay and the continued suffering of American citizens,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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