WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump this week continued attacking disaster relief for Puerto Rico in the wake of two devastating hurricanes, repeating his false claim the US territory “got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before,” and blaming the island’s slow recovery on local authorities.
Puerto Rico has received $11 billion, about a quarter of the $41 billion in funding it has been allocated by federal authorities, as it tries to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — not the $91 billion the president claims the island has received.
A senior administration official said the source of the $91 billion figure Trump has repeatedly used is a combination of the $41 billion in disaster aid that’s been allocated to the island and another $50 billion the administration anticipates will be needed over the “life of the disaster,” which usually means several years and possibly decades.
Trump raised the same number during a closed-door meeting with Republicans last week, when he told senators the island has already received too much disaster relief and has squandered those funds.
Trump also repeated his false claim on Tuesday that the federal government has spent more on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria than any other storm in history. The federal government spent around $120 billion in total in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some of those funds continuing for years after the storm as communities continued to deal with the fallout.
Democrats said the president’s aversion to providing aid to the island is based on a racist and colonialist attitude toward Puerto Rico, and the idea that Puerto Rico and its 3.1 million US citizens are not really part of the US.
“Denying the funds they need to recover while requesting the ‘A+ treatment’ for other states is insulting to Puerto Ricans and for Latinos in general to say the least,” Sen. Bob Menendez told BuzzFeed News last week.
In part of his Twitter diatribe against Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Trump tweeted that Puerto Rican officials “only take from USA.”
White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley also referred to Puerto Rico as “that country” during a segment on MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson this week; Puerto Rico is a US territory. Later in the segment, after being questioned by Jackson on that point, Gidley said that it was a mistake.
While the president continues to rail against Puerto Rico, Congress is struggling to pass a disaster relief funding bill that provides money for Puerto Rico as well as states on the mainland that have been hit by hurricanes and other natural disasters. The funding has been held up in large part because the president has made it clear to Republicans that he opposes further disaster relief for the island.
The president has specifically blamed Puerto Rico for holding up disaster relief for the states.
“The best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump,” Trump tweeted. “So many wonderful people, but with such bad Island leadership and with so much money wasted. Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments, and so little appreciation!”
Aid for Puerto Rico in terms of funding, federal emergency personnel on the ground, and supplies, came in slower than it did for Texas and Florida in the aftermath of their storms in 2017, according to several investigations since.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Trump compared the storm to Katrina, saying the storm that hit Puerto Rico was not a “real disaster” like Katrina, because the official death toll at the time stood at just 16, compared to the 1,833 people who died as a result of Katrina. When Puerto Rican authorities finally admitted that approximately 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricane, Trump refused to acknowledge the deaths, instead saying the death toll was “done by the Democrats to make me look as bad as possible.”
Trump’s reluctance to give Puerto Rico more disaster funding is at the center of a fight on Capitol Hill over how much the island will get in a disaster funding bill that’s currently stalled in the Senate. The Democrat-majority House passed a bill in January that included $600 million in emergency food stamp funding — the island began making cuts to food stamp benefits last month due to a lack of funds — as well as $700 million in disaster recovery funding for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by natural disasters.
In the Senate, Republicans sought to pass a $13.4 billion bill that included just the $600 million for food stamps but excluded other funding for Puerto Rico. The rest of the disaster recovery funds in the bill go to states, including North and South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas, giving Republicans from those states a strong incentive to find a compromise that can make it through the House and the Senate and get the president’s approval. Republicans argued that alternatives offered up by Democrats, which closely mirrored the House bill, would have left out some of those states.
On Tuesday, Democrats introduced another measure, which adds up to $16.7 billion to the total package and reinstates some funds for Puerto Rico. That bill includes funding for North and South Carolina, Florida, and other states hit by disasters, in addition to $1.1 billion for Puerto Rico (including the $600 million in food stamp aid). Both sides said they aren’t giving up on negotiations, but Senate Appropriations Committee chair Sen. Richard Shelby said on Tuesday that the Democratic bill is unlikely to make any headway in the Senate because the president will not sign proposals that include additional funding for Puerto Rico.
Democrats acknowledge the urgency of passing the $600 million in food stamp funding for Puerto Rico, where 1.3 million people have already seen cuts to their food stamp checks. But they argue that the federal government needs to provide more funds for Puerto Rico and assurances that more of the federal funds already allocated to the island will be released within 90 days.
The two agencies with the largest chunks of funding for Puerto Rico, FEMA and HUD, have $15 billion and $20 billion allocated for the island, respectively. About $9 billion of the FEMA dollars have actually reached the island, according to the agency, while HUD just made its first $1.5 billion available to the island in February, 18 months after the hurricane. Puerto Ricans have been waiting on these HUD block grants in particular to reconstruct houses, relocate communities living in high-risk areas, and for programs to improve the infrastructure’s storm resilience.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, is hoping for around $78 billion in federal funds in total from federal agencies, according to his fiscal plan released last week, which the governor is required to prepare as part of the government’s bankruptcy agreement with federal authorities. Rosselló estimated in November 2017 that Puerto Rico would need $94.4 billion to recover and rebuild with infrastructure that could withstand another storm.
Rosselló responded to the president on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Mr. President, this ‘place’ you refer to, #PuertoRico, is home to over three million proud Americans that are still recovering from the storm and in need of federal assistance. We are not your adversaries, we are your citizens,” Rosselló wrote.