WASHINGTON – Puerto Rico is facing delays in getting the $44 billion that was allocated to the island territory by Congress after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and recent earthquakes, according to House Democrats.
“The island does not have access to the capital it needs to begin many of the recovery projects, which is an important step in receiving recovery funding through FEMA reimbursements,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said in a statement Wednesday after returning from a trip to Puerto Rico with three other House members.
Hoyer said he and other lawmakers will work closely with federal agencies and the Puerto Rican government to “address that challenge.”
In a meeting with Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced’s cabinet and Rep. Jenniffer González, lawmakers heard the “challenges the government of Puerto Rico and many municipalities face in accessing capital to begin construction so that FEMA can then reimburse the island with recovery funding that Congress has appropriated,” Hoyer said. He did not detail what those challenges were.
Hoyer, along with Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-New York, Carolyn B. Maloney, D- New York and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D- New York, made a two-day visit to see recovery efforts after 2017’s devastating hurricanes, the damage done to the island after its recent earthquakes and to meet with the people affected.
“After experiencing back-to-back natural disasters, our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico need our assistance and we cannot abandon them,” Hoyer said.
Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing four and causing more than $750 million in damage. Maria, just two weeks later, killed nearly 3,000 and left more than a million people without power for almost a year; infrastructure throughout the island was destroyed and so much housing was wiped out that the island suffered a humanitarian crisis.
In January, multiple earthquakes caused new, widespread damage to Puerto Rico, still struggling with the hurricanes’ aftermath.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been criticized for its handling of the U.S. territory’s troubles. Last August, the president called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth.”
But Hoyer said he and the delegation saw a different story.
“Despite the president’s claims of corruption in Puerto Rico, the briefings from the government of Puerto Rico and FEMA gave me confidence that recovery funding is being spent with accountability and transparency measures in place,” the congressman said.
Hoyer called for the Senate to take up the emergency supplemental spending bill passed by the House earlier this month to “address the recent set of earthquakes which have damaged many communities in the south of the island.”
During the members’ trip to the island, FEMA released a statement detailing its efforts and accomplishments it has made in Puerto Rico after the recent natural disasters.
“Nearly $16 million was approved to assist 27,924 FEMA applicants. The funding covers temporary housing assistance, basic home repairs and other needs not covered by the survivors’ insurance policies” according to the statement from FEMA.
Additionally, ice, water and clothing were provided to 500 survivors of the earthquakes, according to FEMA.
Rental assistance also was provided to more than 5,000 residents, amounting to $4.6 million, FEMA said The agency’s disaster relief centers across the island have assisted almost 11,000 people.
The U.S. Small Business Administration approved seven low-interest disaster loans for businesses and 87 loans for homeowners and renters for a total of $2.5 million, FEMA said.
During a press conference in Puerto Rico, Hoyer said he is “frustrated” that the disaster relief was not being provided to the island in a more timely manner.
There is no “set date” or timeline for disaster relief, FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues told Capital News Service.
He said FEMA approaches disaster relief, such as that in Puerto Rico, as a community effort. In the aftermath of a hurricane or earthquake, trying to restore a community is the “tedious and hardest” aspect of a disaster.
When asked about the challenges Puerto Rico is facing regarding the money from Congress, Llargues directed inquiries to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That agency did not respond to a request for comment.
“The Senate needs to step up and immediately send much-needed aid to Puerto Rico,” Maloney said.
“It’s my hope this visit drew attention to the need for all of us to come together to assist the island in its time of need, including enactment of the earthquake assistance previously passed by the House,” Velázquez said.