WASHINGTON — The partial government shutdown further delayed $1.5 billion in disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico that the island had been waiting on for a year, a letter from a Housing and Urban Development official to Sen. Elizabeth Warren confirms.
Puerto Rican authorities have been waiting for those funds to be able to reconstruct houses torn apart by Hurricane Maria, relocate communities currently living in high-risk areas, and for programs aimed at improving their infrastructure's resilience in the event of another storm.
The $1.5 billion in block grants from HUD was allocated in February last year and approved in July. Puerto Rican authorities have been frustrated at the lengthy process of accessing the funds. The shutdown caused even further delays, Len Wolfson, HUD's assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations told Warren in Monday's letter, and Puerto Rican authorities were only able to access the funds for the first time on Feb. 8.
The $1.5 billion is the first HUD recovery money they have actually been able to access, some 18 months after the hurricane tore through the island.
“Hurricanes Maria and Irma killed nearly 3,000 people—maybe more—and devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure,” Warren said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “HUD’s admission that the government shutdown delayed disaster relief funding for over a month is just the latest example of the Trump administration’s shameful mishandling of disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and throughout the United States.”
In response to an earlier letter from Warren, Wolfson wrote that most HUD staff returned to work on Jan. 28, and could not review and approve changes they had requested in Puerto Rico's plan for the funds until after that date.
Wolfson wrote the letter, obtained by BuzzFeed News, on behalf of HUD Secretary Ben Carson and Office of Management and Budget head and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Warren's letter had also referenced reports that President Donald Trump told advisers in September that he did not want any further disaster relief funding to go to Puerto Rico, after hearing an unsubstantiated claim that Puerto Rico was using disaster relief funds to pay off its debt.
She asked Carson and Mulvaney in her letter whether the president has ever demanded that disaster relief funds to Puerto Rico should be cut off, and about what the administration plans to do with disaster relief funds already authorized and appropriated for Puerto Rico.
Wolfson's letter this week did not address those questions.
In addition to the $1.5 billion HUD allocated to Puerto Rico last February, the agency in April announced that another $18.5 billion in block grants will go to the island, but those funds also have to go through a lengthy approval process before they reach Puerto Ricans.
While the $18.5 billion was the largest single disaster recovery grant in HUD's history, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló had asked for $46 billion, given the state of destruction of the island's housing.