Biden releases $1 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, overturning one of Trump's pettiest moves

Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

It has been nearly 3.5 years since Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, made landfall in Puerto Rico, causing an unprecedented amount of damage and death. The island nation has struggled to recover from the devastation caused by that natural disaster — and the Trump administration is in part to blame, as it chose to withhold as much as $1.3 billion in federal funding that was meant to aid in Puerto Rico's recovery efforts. On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it would right this wrong, pledging to release the funds and eliminate hurdles to aid that the Trump administration had put in place.

No specific date was provided as to when the aid will be released. Another $4.9 billion will be more readily available, too: The Trump administration, in a final move of pettiness and cruelty, had placed additional limits on that funding on the morning of Jan. 20, during Trump's final hours in office. The Biden administration said that Puerto Rico will have to apply for that aid again, so that it can be approved this time without any additional restrictions.

At the time, the Trump administration claimed it imposed conditions on the money because Puerto Rico lacks experience handling large amounts of federal disaster aid, so it wanted to disperse the money slowly, per The New York Times.

Congress originally approved $20 billion in relief aid for Puerto Rico in 2017. That money was intended to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria, which did more than $90 billion in damage to the island nation. But according to a Congressional Research Service report filed in November 2020, just $20.6 million of that aid has actually been spent, in large part because aid has not been distributed, leaving 99.9% of funding unused.

The act of governmental cruelty is the likely result of a weird personal grudge that Trump had against the leadership of Puerto Rico.

Under Trump, the Department of Housing and Urban Development placed restrictions on funding to Puerto Rico that it did not place on states that sought similar aid and support. In early 2020, for example, the Trump administration blocked Puerto Rico from using the funding to rebuild its electrical grid and prevented the territory from offering a $15 minimum hourly wage for those doing federally funded relief work. The agency also required significantly more documentation from Puerto Rico than it did from other states before it would release funds. Those barriers have kept the vast majority of aid locked up and inaccessible.

Withholding that aid has made it next to impossible for Puerto Rico to recover from the massive amount of damage brought by Hurricane Maria. According to a report from MercyCorps, a non-governmental humanitarian aid organization, day-long power outages are still a common occurrence in the territory, more than three years after the storm hit. Many homes are still adorned with tarps instead of roofs, because the cost of restoring the structures is too high. Utility poles remain collapsed, indicating that much of the island's grid has yet to be restored.

As many as 200,000 Puerto Ricans left the island in the wake of the storm. Many have simply not returned home. “That slow pace of disbursement has dampened Puerto Rico’s recovery,” Rosanna Torres, Washington director for the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rican think tank, told the Times.

There does not seem to be any good reason for the Trump administration's decision to withhold or restrict access to the absolutely necessary relief funds. If anything, the act of governmental cruelty is the likely result of a weird personal grudge that Trump had against the leadership of Puerto Rico, which he has called "crazed" and "grossly incompetent." Remember too that this was a president who tossed paper towels, as if it were a game, into a crowd of storm-ravaged people desperate for basic necessities.

Even as aid starts to trickle in under the Biden administration, Puerto Rico is in a dire situation. The island has been hit by a series of earthquakes in recent months that are continuing to shake its already crumbling infrastructure. Thousands of residents have no home or shelter to speak of. These are tragedies in any situation — but it’s particularly upsetting to know that they were allowed to linger on thanks to the heartless actions of one powerful man.