Update April 1, 2019: The Senate voted down two different disaster aid bills Monday as Republicans and Democrats hit a stalemate over relief for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican officials have for months denounced the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria, urging for more attention and action to help the island’s hard-pressed storm survivors. This week, island leaders declared a rare victory when Senate leaders folded disaster relief funding into a two-year budget deal to avert a government shutdown.
Puerto Rico, along with the United States Virgin Islands, certainly has reason to cheer: The deal includes $4.8 billion to replenish dwindling Medicaid funds, $2 billion to restore the shredded power grid and $9 billion for housing and urban development projects.
But the funding falls tens of billions of dollars short of what Puerto Rico says it needs to come back from the devastating storm. In November, Puerto Rico estimated it would need $94.4 billion to rebuild the island after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and make its infrastructure more resilient to future natural disasters.
Puerto Rico wanted $17 billion for the power grid alone — $15 billion more than what the Senate set aside. By comparison, Florida’s citrus industry is receiving $2.3 billion to recover from Hurricane Irma.
“All of this money, it’s a starting point to initiate recovery and reconstruction,” said Carlos Mercader, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington. “There’s still a lot of work to do with Congress and the administration.”
In September, following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Congress approved $15 billion in relief aid. Lawmakers signed off on another $36.5 billion for storm and wildfires assistance in October, after weeks of criticism leveled against the Trump administration for its response to Maria in Puerto Rico.
The $90 billion disaster relief package outlined on Wednesday also includes aid for communities affected by hurricanes or wildfires in California, Florida, Texas and the Virgin Islands.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Congress approved $10 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency four days later, and another $50 billion six days later. The federal government is still spending money on Katrina assistance, more than 12 years after the storm’s landfall.
Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s worst natural disaster in nearly a century, the island was already grappling with insolvency. The government declared a form of bankruptcy last May, after years of borrowing money to pay for operating expenses after a painful recession that began in 2006.
The relief package sets aside $4.8 billion for Medicaid in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, helping to avoid a looming shortfall that could have left some 600,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in Puerto Rico without health insurance by April.
Puerto Rican leaders worried some of the people left uninsured would migrate to the mainland seeking coverage. Compared to the states, territories receive only a fraction of funding for entitlement programs. The Senate deal would waive the requirement for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to share in the cost of Medicaid for two years, placing the funding responsibility on the federal government instead.
Louisiana received the same reprieve after Hurricane Katrina, but for only one year, said Representative Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting delegate in Congress. Lawmakers approved relief packages for 10 years after that storm, she noted. Puerto Rico is not that far removed yet from Hurricane Maria.
“Receiving these funds is important, and that will demonstrate that Puerto Rico will use them wisely and with transparency,” she said. “That’s an important issue here: We can be a model for how to invest in infrastructure on the island.”
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló, said the $2 billion earmarked for power restoration in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands could help his island harden its battered grid. While funds from the previous aid packages went to FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, the latest relief package will give money directly to the Puerto Rican government.
Twenty-eight percent of Puerto Ricans — more than 400,000 utility customers — still do not have power more than four months after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico.
“With these resources, we can begin rebuilding our housing and energy future, putting Puerto Rico on a new path forward,” Mr. Rosselló said in a statement.
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