The White House last month took steps to release more than $6 billion dollars in aid to Puerto Rico as part of its hurricane rebuilding and climate resilience efforts.
According to multiple sources, the Biden Administration on Feb.1 announced it was moving forward with plans to disburse $1.3 billion in climate disaster-related aid to the U.S. territory from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The administration also has begun to loosen restrictions on an additional $4.9 billion approved just before former President Donald Trump left office.
“Today … the administration is releasing $1.3 billion dollars in aid allocated by Congress to Puerto Rico that can be deployed to protect against future climate disasters,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a Feb. 2 press briefing. “In partnership with the Puerto Rico Department of Public Housing, the administration is also working to remove onerous restrictions put in place by the last administration on nearly $5 billion in additional funds,” she continued. Congress approved close to $60 billion in emergency funding for the island’s recovery and reconstruction after it was decimated by Hurricane Maria. That storm made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 storm with winds up to 155 mph.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration estimated damages in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands at $90 billion, making Maria one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. It’s estimated the storm killed about 3,000 people in Puerto Rico. Other storms and several earthquakes have compounded the damage in the years since.
Close to four years later, however, less than half of the $60 billion Congressionally approved aid has actually reached Puerto Rico, with $40 billion remaining unspent.
In a February interview with the Washington Post, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he asked senior White House officials to quickly disburse billions in hurricane disaster aid that had for years been held up by the Trump administration.
Pierluisi said that he, during a recent Zoom call, urged Biden administration officials to lift strict restrictions on federal reconstruction aid that the Trump administration enacted in 2019. Democratic lawmakers in Florida and New York also encouraged President Biden to release the remaining funds to expedite the recovery effort, which has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Former President Trump and his administration frequently touted the amount of money allocated to Puerto Rico to assist with natural disaster recovery efforts. Trump himself regularly antagonized island leaders by repeatedly going after the mayor of San Juan and deriding the island as “one of the most corrupt places on Earth.” In addition, he previously questioned the death toll from the hurricane, claiming it was inflated to make him look bad.
Biden’s presidential campaign website states that he will “ensure that Puerto Rico receives the federal disaster reconstruction funding that it urgently needs.”
According to the White House website, Biden will not wait to address the current untenable situation in Puerto Rico, “which has resulted in the unequal treatment of the American citizens who call the island home. As President, Biden will create a federal working group for Puerto Rico which will report directly to the President to make sure Puerto Rico has the resources and technical assistance it needs not only to recover, but also to prosper. He will respect Puerto Rico and support the Island’s recovery and renewal, including by supporting a full recovery and infrastructure reconstruction to modern standards; investing in Puerto Rico’s future through economic development initiatives and support for families; providing relief from unsustainable debt; and expanding access to education and workforce development.”