The Trump administration has finally ended a months-long hold on aid funds to Puerto Rico
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing thousands and resulting in nearly $100 billion in damage. Now, more than two years later, the Trump administration is finally ending a hold on funds for Puerto Rico ... just in time for the island to now be dealing with the residual effects of significant earthquakes. As Puerto Rico faces these new challenges, the administration's slow response to Maria leaves many wondering if Puerto Ricans will be left without aid for years once again.
Although Congress called for about $20 billion in disaster funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after Maria, Puerto Rico only received $1.5 billion. Even with the hold on funds now ending, Puerto Rico won't get everything that Congress approved. Right now, HUD will allow Puerto Rico to access $8.2 billion in aid.
The funds won't be released until after a Federal Register notice outlining the grant agreement and how the money can be used has been published, Politico reported. Still, the move is being celebrated by many.
“We’ve been fighting for this for many months so I’m happy that finally [the Office of Management and Budget] and HUD approved the notification,” Jennifer González, Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative on Capitol Hill, told Politico.
The fight to get Puerto Rico the funding it deserves after Maria has been a long one. On Twitter, President Trump — who referred to himself as the "best thing that's ever happened to Puerto Rico" — blamed politicians on the island for the lack of funding.
"Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth," Trump wrote. "Congress approved billions of dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to crooked pols. No good!"
However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was called before the House Homeland Security Committee in June over inflated Hurricane Maria payments. The federal response to Maria was called an "abject failure" by the committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
The administration's decision to release funding comes after Puerto Rico was hit by a massive earthquake last week, which was followed by several aftershocks. Well over hundreds of quakes have wracked the island since late December, and last week's 5.8-magnitude quake earlier this month left Puerto Rico in a state of emergency.
As a result, lawmakers called upon the administration to immediately release the previously approved funding. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the hold on funds "shameful" in an open letter to Trump.
"It is unconscionable that since Dec. 28, the people of Puerto Rico have been dealing with hundreds of earthquakes and aftershocks — just two years after being ravaged by Hurricane Maria," the letter says.
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out that Puerto Rico "cannot afford a repeat of the same failed response of the administration following Hurricanes Maria and Irma."
"The administration’s willful withholding of congressionally-approved assistance in the aftermath of those hurricanes has seriously undermined efforts to prepare for future disasters such as this, and risks senseless and preventable loss of life and damage now," Pelosi said.
It is unclear when the series of earthquakes on Puerto Rico will end. Although less deadly than Hurricane Maria, these quakes have caused a lot of damage. For example, José Ortiz, the CEO of public power utility PREPA, told CBS News that the Costa Sur power plant, which generates about 40 percent of the island's electricity, "will be out for probably over a year."