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Puerto Rico struggles to get disaster aid amid Congress, Trump showdown

Trump claims “Puerto Rico got 91 billion dollars for the hurricane.” A White House official told NBC News the federal government allocated $40 billion.
Image: Puerto Rico housing
Roberto Figueroa Caballero sits on a small table in his home destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in La Perla neighborhood on the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico on Oct. 5, 2017.Ramon Espinosa / AP file

President Donald Trump amplified his opposition to granting more disaster funding to Puerto Rico in a series of tweets Tuesday morning — fueling a showdown between his party and Senate Democrats, who want to give more aid to the hurricane-battered island.

Trump went on Twitter to falsely claim that “Puerto Rico got 91 billion dollars for the hurricane.” He may have confused that number with the overall amount of the damages suffered by Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria, which have been estimated at $90 billion, making it the third-costliest hurricane in the United States on record.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., suggested in a tweet Tuesday that the $91 billion "is an estimate of [the money] to be allotted over the next 20 years."

But the actual amount allocated to the island is far less. A White House official told NBC News last week that the federal government has allocated $40 billion for disaster recovery in Puerto Rico. And much of that money has not actually reached the island, mostly due to the time-consuming process put in place that requires its officials to submit a series of plans that outline how they expect to use the money and await federal approval.

Puerto Rico originally expected to receive part of this money in January, but the longest government shutdown in U.S. history delayed the process.

Even though it is on track to receive tens of billions of dollars in unprecedented aid — particularly from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allocated historic amounts of funding for the island in the areas of housing, infrastructure and energy — most of the money has not made its way to communities in the island.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló responded Tuesday to Trump’s remarks on Twitter saying that “Puerto Rico has not been able to spend a single dollar of the money already appropriated by Congress.”

While Puerto Rico has been able to use some of the more than $3.7 billion the federal government disbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to finance local government grants during the immediate aftermath of Maria in 2017, most of the money appropriated by Congress last year is still stuck in Washington.

The dispute prevented the passage of a Republican-sponsored bill to provide disaster relief funding to states affected by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, which failed to advance to a final floor vote Monday night after Democrats asked for more aid for Puerto Rico. The Senate bill would have granted $600 million in food assistance to Puerto Rico and $5 million to finance a study on the impact of emergency aid after the hurricane.

The House version of the aid package, mainly backed by Democrats, includes money to finance additional projects in Puerto Rico that were not included in the Senate version of the bill — such as funds for FEMA reimbursements to local government entities who spent money doing emergency-related work, and collecting debris, among other expenses.

It also includes $25 million for the restoration of the Caño Martín Peña, a body of water that stretches alongside the San Juan Bay area and is surrounded by low-income communities that were hit hard by Maria.

Rosselló urged senators to support the House version of the bill, saying "it provides essential support for the recovery and reconstruction needs, including nutritional assistance and infrastructure provisions of the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico."

But Senate Republicans declined, saying the House disaster aid package lacks funding for Midwestern states, such as Iowa and Nebraska, that were suffering from floods. The Senate measure was sought by lawmakers from southern states such as Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, which were hit by hurricanes Michael and Florence last year.

A senior Senate Democratic aide told NBC News on Tuesday that Democrats will seek to add additional funding to the House disaster bill so it provides billions in new aid for Midwest areas hit by the floods.

“Because the House passed their disaster bill back in January, it didn’t include any aid to assist those affected by the recent devastating flooding in the Midwest,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor on Monday. “Sen. Leahy is planning to offer an amendment to the House bill that would provide much needed aid to survivors of those recent disasters, because they too deserve the aid they need to recover.”

Schumer, alongside Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, officially introduced the amendments to the House disaster bill on Tuesday evening.

Some legislators expect the Republicans to block such legislation, even with the changes proposed by Democrats, out of fear of backlash from Trump who has repeatedly asked Congress to stop providing relief and reconstruction money to Puerto Rico.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who supports the Senate version of the disaster aid package, said at a press conference Tuesday that he would "support what I know can get support on the president’s side.”

Why Trump wants to cut disaster aid for Puerto Rico

Trump has claimed on previous occasions that the island is trying to use recovery money to pay its $72 billion public debt.

Neither Puerto Rican officials nor the U.S.-appointed fiscal board overseeing its financial recovery have publicly said they plan to use federal money to directly pay bondholders. In fact, any such plan would have to be approved by Congress.

On Tuesday, Trump said on Twitter that Puerto Rican “politicians are incompetent or corrupt” and that they “spend the money foolishly.”

Though the Trump administration has questioned Puerto Rico's capacity to administer relief funds — especially after the island awarded a $300 million contract to Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based company with only two employees, to repair the collapsed electrical system that prompted the second-longest blackout in the world — several reports have revealed that federal offices are also not properly equipped to help Puerto Rico and other disaster areas manage relief funds.

A report from the Government Accountability Office said that the federal office within HUD that oversees disaster relief community development block grants had not implemented a plan to monitor these grants, which include $20 billion to Puerto Rico.

In an ​after-action report​, FEMA acknowledged agency failures in Puerto Rico in areas such as staffing and coordination.

After the Whitefish Energy incident, Puerto Rico canceled the company’s contract and the fiscal board overseeing the island's finances imposed stricter contract review policies for the future. The fiscal board now requires the Puerto Rican government to get approval from the board before awarding contracts of $10 million or more.