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WASHINGTON — María Meléndez, the mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, came to Washington this week on a mission to ensure that federal aid already allocated for hurricane recovery is finally delivered to her city and others on the island.
Meléndez's visit to talk about local governance during natural disasters and crisis management came a day before Trump declared a national emergency to secure funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall that he dangled as a presidential campaign promise.
After multiple reports surfaced saying that funds allocated for recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria could be used to finance the wall, Trump’s action has heightened concerns among Puerto Rican officials who have vowed to fight such a move.
“If the president intends to use his emergency powers to take funds from Puerto Rico and other states, I'll see him in court," Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said on Twitter early Friday morning. "Our island urgently needs the disbursement of the money allocated to direct and reconstruction."
Hours later, a senior administration official said that taking any disaster relief funds away from Puerto Rico and Texas was not part of the plan, adding that the $8 billion they currently plan to use for the wall should be sufficient.
While much attention has been paid to the capital city of San Juan and its recuperation efforts, other island cities and towns have been often overlooked and have the added burden of lacking the resources and personnel to help in a recovery.
More than 400 buildings in Ponce were damaged during Hurricane Maria in 2017, damage is estimated at more than $500 million, and the cost of reconstruction is estimated to be at least $200 million.
“We are used to hurricanes, but nothing like what happened with Hurricane Maria. It was total devastation and we still need to reconstruct the island. It is a long recovery. We need those funds,” Meléndez, known as Mayita, told NBC News after participating in a forum Thursday at New York University's Washington Center.
After the hurricane hit, many homeowners on the island, particularly in rural areas, ran into bureaucratic red tape in applying for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because they could not prove ownership. Meléndez told of a long-time resident whose home had been handed down through the generations and who, right before the hurricane, had taken out a loan to renovate it, only to lose it in Hurricane Maria.
“And when he applied for assistance from FEMA, they said he had no proof that he was the owner.” Community organizations and law schools on the island have been working with homeowners, Meléndez adds, to assist them in getting federal aid even without a title or deed, and that can include a letter from the mayor’s office attesting to the ownership of the home.
But the key in really helping Ponce and other cities move forward, the mayor said, is swift action on disbursing the funds to Puerto Rico.
Congress last year approved $20 billion in Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief to repair its electric grid and repair homes, but just a fraction of those funds have made its way to the island. Additionally, the Trump administration hints it may take some of those disaster relief funds to help pay for a border wall if Congress does not fully fund it. The government of Puerto Rico has said it will sue the federal government should that occur.
“I really hope that it doesn’t happen," Meléndez said of a lawsuit. "Congress already approved that money, those funds have to get to Puerto Rico.”
“I hope President Trump understands the needs we have on the island and that the comments that funds will be diverted from hurricane recovery to build a border wall are just that, comments, and not real," she said. "There’s a lot of support in Congress for us to get the funds. We have filled out all the necessary paperwork and turned in all the documents. We’ve done everything we been asked and we’re still waiting, 16 months later.”
Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., a native of Puerto Rico, introduced legislation this week that would prevent the Trump administration from diverting previously allocated disaster relief funds to finance a border wall.
“Like many of my colleagues in Congress, I was alarmed when it was reported that the administration is mulling taking resources meant to help Puerto Ricans who are still suffering from Hurricane Maria and diverting those funds to pay for Donald Trump’s stupid, hateful border wall,” Velázquez said in a statement. “The idea that we would siphon assistance from one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history and spend that money on a project aimed at demonizing immigrants is appalling. My colleagues and I will fight such a preposterous move with every ounce of energy we have.”
“Before Hurricane Maria, there were political differences among us," Meléndez said, referring to the island's mayors. "I’m of one party and the mayors of surrounding municipalities are of another and we rarely talked. But after the hurricane we have all come together to help each other."
That alliance between Ponce and surrounding municipalities allows them to spread the costs of reconstruction and allows for greater flexibility in negotiating contracts and other rebuilding efforts. Additionally, the city of Ponce has granted exemptions on building permits to speed up construction and get businesses and homeowners back on their feet. While residents have electricity, some streets are still dark because damaged light poles have yet to be repaired.
Meléndez is hoping that the administration and members of Congress — regardless of current political battles — ensure that the funds necessary for Puerto Rico's reconstruction reach the island.
“Fortunately we have a lot of support in Congress to get the assistance that’s coming to us,” she said.