CHN: Puerto Rico May Get Long-Overdue Hurricane Aid, and House Moves to Provide Additional Support for Earthquakes

House Democrats on Jan. 16 proposed a $3.35 billion emergency spending bill to provide aid to Puerto Rico to help residents recover from recent earthquakes. The figure includes $2 billion in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds for long-term rebuilding efforts, housing needs, and disaster recovery, among other projects; $1.25 billion for road repairs; and $100 million for educational needs. The House is expected to vote on the bill when it returns this week, but the measure’s future in the Senate is uncertain. The Trump Administration told Politico that it would oppose the House bill, pointing out that it had approved an emergency declaration after the initial earthquakes. Such disaster relief is used to respond to immediate emergencies. More funding is needed for restoration of roads and buildings, public or private, and is routinely provided by Congress to help communities recover.

The bill’s unveiling came the same day that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced that the Trump Administration would – after months of delay – free up access to more than $8 billion in funds Congress had previously appropriated for hurricane relief for the U.S. territory. In a statement, Secretary Carson also said that HUD would “soon” publish a notice outlining guidelines needed to free up nearly $8.3 billion in long-term mitigation aid appropriated in 2018. The deadline for HUD to publish the notice was last September.

Advocates have expressed great concern for the Americans citizens of Puerto Rico, especially in light of the fact that congressionally-appropriated funds to help in the recovery of the island have been routinely held up by the Trump Administration. According to Politico, Puerto Rico has received just $1.5 billion of the roughly $20 billion of congressionally authorized disaster funds that HUD is supposed to administer. In a statement released after Secretary Carson’s announcement, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) said, “The Trump administration has finally showed signs of relenting in its attempts to illegally withhold vital aid to Puerto Rico, and must provide the rest of the assistance this Congress has already enacted for the island. However, there are still urgent unmet needs on the island that necessitate additional relief. These needs have been compounded by recent earthquakes, which have forced thousands of families from their homes, flattened schools, and severely damaged roads and other infrastructure.”

Shortly after the announcement that it would release the funds, HUD laid out unusual conditions that would yet again make it less likely that Puerto Rico could use the money. HUD will require Puerto Rico to turn over part of its oversight of these funds to the unelected Fiscal Control Board set up by the federal government in the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis. HUD also would limit pay of contractors involved in reconstruction to less than $15/hour and would not allow these funds to be used to repair the island’s electrical grid. Congress had specifically appropriated $2 billion out of the total $20 billion it approved for restoration after the hurricane for the grid’s repair, but these funds are still held up. Further, HUD would require creation of a home ownership registry. Many properties in Puerto Rico have been passed from generation to generation without formal legal title, making it difficult for homeowners to qualify for federal aid. While regularizing title would help, advocates are concerned that a registry would wind up denying ownership status to families that cannot provide formal documents.

In opposing the House earthquake recovery package, the same kind of aid routinely granted to states after natural disasters, and placing unprecedented restrictions on the long-delayed hurricane aid, the Trump Administration maintained its reluctance to help Puerto Ricans. Ironically, improving buildings’ resistance to earthquakes was among the rebuilding sought by Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria but denied by the Administration.