The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hit by devastating earthquakes, Puerto Rico still waiting on billions for hurricane relief

Pelosi calls on administration to ‘cease and desist’ its ‘unlawful’ withholding of funds

A man cleans up a shop Wednesday after an earthquake in Guanica, Puerto Rico. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

As Puerto Rico weathers devastating earthquakes, the island is still waiting on more than $18 billion in federal funding that was designated after hurricanes that struck more than two years ago. On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused the Trump administration of acting unlawfully in withholding the money and called on officials to “cease and desist that illegal activity.”

The holdup has continued past a congressionally mandated deadline last fall for more than $8 billion of the aid to be officially announced. As aftershocks continued to shake the U.S. territory after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake Tuesday morning, Democrats sought to refocus attention on the delayed hurricane aid, while questioning whether the federal government will give Puerto Rico what it needs to recover this time.

“I think it puts a considerable burden on the administration to show good faith,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), pointing to President Trump’s history of criticizing Puerto Rico and moving to slow the disbursement of money. “And in this case, good faith involves not just responding to this latest disaster, but cleaning up from the previous one as well.”

An ongoing dispute over Puerto Rico could also become an issue in the presidential election. Residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in federal elections, even though they are U.S. citizens, but many live and cast ballots in Florida, a critical swing state.

Trump’s opposition to sending aid to Puerto Rico stalled a major nationwide disaster relief bill last year and led to disputes with Democrats. The island’s governor at the time, Ricardo Rosselló, described Trump as a “bully” and threatened to punch him in the mouth.

Rosselló resigned in August amid political pressure and sweeping protests.

Trump repeatedly said he had done more for Puerto Rico than any other U.S. president and his concerns about sending more money to the island were related to its history of corruption and mismanagement of funds.

In the months since, public feuding between Trump and Democrats on the issue has died down. But it now threatens to flare anew over the federal government’s delay in releasing about $18 billion in Housing and Urban Development disaster relief funding allocated for various needs on the island, including restoration projects and repairs to the electrical grid. Puerto Rico was ravaged by back-to-back hurricanes in September 2017, with Hurricane Maria killing about 3,000 people and causing widespread devastation.

HUD officials and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have defended the administration’s response to Puerto Rico.

“This administration has been working to support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and will continue to do so. Over $90 billion has been forecast to be spent on Puerto Rico recovery relief, which is unprecedented,” said OMB spokesman Chase Jennings. “Under President Trump, Puerto Rico has received more recovery funds than at any time in U.S. history. While we continue to ensure Puerto Rico has what they need, we must also make sure the proper guidelines are in place to make certain the people of Puerto Rico directly benefit, not politicians with their history of corruption.”

The $90 billion figure ⁠ — which Trump has claimed has already been given to the island for hurricane response ⁠ — actually reflects an estimate of Puerto Rico’s needs over about the next two decades.

Congress appropriated $19.9 billion through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant disaster relief program for Puerto Rico’s hurricane response needs. Of that amount, Puerto Rico to date has access to only $1.5 billion, and Democrats are upset that HUD missed a Sept. 4 deadline to issue an official notice on the availability of $8.3 billion more in remaining funds.

“We call upon the White House to stop its unlawful withholding of funds from Puerto Rico,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference Thursday. “There are needs that need to be met, there has been a disaster designated, but the ongoing withholding of funds appropriated by Congress to Puerto Rico is illegal.”

A group of Democrats, led by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), also sent a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson on Tuesday pressing for the release of the additional money.

A senior HUD official said in response that the agency was approaching the issue “in a prudent manner with strong financial controls in place to mitigate the risk to federal taxpayers.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, also said that of the $1.5 billion Puerto Rico has access to, it has so far spent only $5.8 million.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in an interview that the federal government “ought to try to release money as fast as they can.” He added he was staying in touch with Puerto Rico’s leaders and representatives, as well as federal agencies, to ensure the territory’s needs would be met. Scott said he was confident Trump had “committed to do the right thing.”

Trump approved an emergency declaration for the island on Tuesday, which will allow for $5 million to be spent on emergency services in response to the earthquake.

Larger amounts could follow if the island’s governor requests a major disaster declaration. The extent of the damage from the quakes has yet to be determined, and it is unclear how much money would be required to respond. At least one casualty was reported, and there have been widespread power outages.