Stateside Puerto Ricans demand answers on unused hurricane aid to Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican government has only spent $15.2 million of the $1.5 billion available to the island in block grant funds from HUD.
Image: Residents sit on a couch outside of their destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017.
Residents sit on a couch outside their destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017.Gerald Herbert / AP file

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By Nicole Acevedo

A coalition of stateside Puerto Rican organizations is asking for answers from Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez as to why the U.S. territory has been slow in spending disbursed federal disaster funds allocated after Hurricane Maria for recovery and reconstruction.

The federal government has allocated nearly $20 billion through the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program, or CDBG-DR, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — one of the main agencies in charge of disaster recovery, alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Only about $1.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds have been disbursed to the island for hurricane recovery efforts such as rebuilding tens of thousands of homes with damaged roofs, many of which are still covered with blue tarps, according to data from FEMA's Recovery Support Function Leadership Group.

The Puerto Rican government has spent $15.2 million of the $1.5 billion available to the island in CDBG-DR funds since February 2019.

"This ongoing situation makes it more difficult for the diaspora to effectively advocate on behalf of the island’s interests," Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition of dozens of organizations and leaders from the states who work to defend the island, wrote in a letter to Vázquez obtained by NBC News.

"The people of Puerto Rico, and the island’s allies in the U.S. and around the world, deserve a full accounting as to why this is the case, what plans are in place to spend the money and how," the Power 4 Puerto Rico letter said.

Nearly three years after Maria, "there are approximately 30,000 families living under plastic blue tarps instead of permanent roofs," Power 4 Puerto Rico wrote, adding that recent earthquakes forced thousands to leave their homes and live in tent cities. "Given this critical state of affairs, we are trying to get clarity on why only $15 million has been spent."

Last year, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and two other top agency officials cited Puerto Rico's slow spending as one of the many reasons that motivated HUD to intentionally stall the island's hurricane relief funding process.

The group has not received an answer since it sent the letter to Vázquez two weeks ago.

The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Vázquez administration has also been slow in using $487.3 million in FEMA funds available to rebuild roads, bridges, electrical grids and public buildings in Puerto Rico. According to the Government Accountability Office, the island has only spent $38.6 million, which represents one percent of all expended FEMA funds.

Power 4 Puerto Rico said it is also concerned about the fact that the Vázquez administration has not put in a request to repurpose $8.7 billion earmarked for debt payments, as well as $16 billion in reserve funds "that are sitting idly." Puerto Rico has over $120 billion in debt and pension obligations, but has put a hold on all debt payments until the island's debt restructuring process ends.

The Puerto Rican government needs permission from the island's federally-appointed financial oversight board to be able to use such funds for other purposes.

"Taxpayer dollars should be used to help the people in need, not wealthy billionaire bondholders" who own Puerto Rico's debt, Power 4 Puerto Rico said. "Are you planning to demand that the Financial Oversight and Management Board provide you the authority to repurpose these funds in order to help disaster victims?"

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