White House announces $11.6B hurricane relief for Puerto Rico

Huge new commitment comes 46 days before the November elections, as Trump tries to woo Florida voters

Analee Dalmau, and her son Mathais, 16 months, along with other Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, arrive in Washington from Massachusetts on June 6, 2018, to lobby lawmakers for aid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Analee Dalmau, and her son Mathais, 16 months, along with other Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, arrive in Washington from Massachusetts on June 6, 2018, to lobby lawmakers for aid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 18, 2020 at 12:20pm

The Trump administration announced a massive aid package for Puerto Rico on Friday, three years after two hurricanes ravaged the U.S. island territory.

The aid, issued through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, includes $9.6 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s battered electrical grid and $2 billion to restore storm-damaged schools and other education facilities, according to a White House statement. The new awards bring to $26 billion the total amount of federal funding obligated to Puerto Rico’s recovery, the statement said.

The announcement marks a turnaround for President Donald Trump, whose administration held up reconstruction aid sitting in the Department of Housing and Urban Development for years while he regularly bashed Puerto Rico officials as corrupt and inept. “The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA,” Trump tweeted in August 2019.

But the burst of new aid, coming less than seven weeks before the presidential election, could help buoy Trump’s electoral prospects in the pivotal state of Florida, which has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island in 2017.

A series of supplemental spending packages were enacted after the 2017 hurricanes, but FEMA has been slow in getting the money out the door. Friday's grant awards amount to more than 80 percent of the agency's funding obligations in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria, the more devastating of the two storms, over the past year, according to FEMA reporting.

Trump made a similar move this week in the swing state of Wisconsin, where he announced that the Agriculture Department would provide $13 billion in another round of direct payments to farmers and ranchers facing economic woes from the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Farm aid emerges as late-inning hurdle to stopgap funding deal]

Democrats said they welcomed the new Puerto Rico aid, even as they faulted Trump for lengthy delays that they said have hurt the island’s recovery. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the administration had “dithered and delayed and refused to deliver timely disaster aid for the people of Puerto Rico.”

House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement: “It will take years for Puerto Rico to repair the unnecessary harm this president and his incompetent assistants have caused the Puerto Rican people, and they won’t forget it.”

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden is making a play for Florida votes partly by promising to speed up Puerto Rico’s recovery. His campaign issued a plan for Puerto Rico that called in part for HUD to remove “onerous restrictions” on Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief funds. The island has been slated to receive nearly $20 billion in such funding, but only a fraction of that total has reached the territory.

And on Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez planned to conduct a “virtual bus tour” stop in Florida to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Maria and discuss Biden’s plans for Puerto Rico’s recovery, according to a campaign statement.

The new aid comes from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, whose latest monthly report showed a withdrawal of up to $11.8 billion for Hurricane Maria expenses in September. The fund’s expected end-of-month balance stood at $14.3 billion, but the continuing resolution working its way through Congress is expected to free up billions more.

“Today’s grant announcements represent some of the largest awards in FEMA’s history for any single disaster recovery event and demonstrate the Federal Government’s continuing commitment to help rebuild the territory and support the citizens of Puerto Rico and their recovery goals,” the White House statement said.