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Puerto Rico earthquake supplemental under discussion in House

HUD ignored a Sept. 4 deadline set by Congress

A Puerto Rican flag waves on top of a pile of rubble as debris is removed from a main road in Guanica, P.R., on Jan. 8, one day after an earthquake hit the island. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)
A Puerto Rican flag waves on top of a pile of rubble as debris is removed from a main road in Guanica, P.R., on Jan. 8, one day after an earthquake hit the island. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)


Updated 4:39 p.m. House Appropriations Democrats are looking at a possible emergency spending package to provide additional aid to Puerto Rico following a series of earthquakes since late last year, including a 5.2 magnitude quake Wednesday.

Several Democrats said they support the idea, which has been discussed in various meetings, but no final decision has been made.

“This is a high priority and a major priority, I think, for us,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., a senior member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. “It is for me as a member, and I know on the Appropriations Committee.”

“I know we’re considering it and I think we need to consider it,” said Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., whose panel oversees the Community Development Block Grant program and the billions of dollars it regularly doles out for long-term disaster relief needs.

Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, said the administration should ask for a supplemental. She does not know if it is under consideration at the White House.

The Connecticut Democrat said when she visited Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, “the needs were unbelievable,” and that was before the recent earthquakes. A 6.4 magnitude quake hit southern Puerto Rico on Jan. 7, killing one person, and a 5.9 magnitude aftershock hit on Saturday, according to local reports. More than 250,000 residents lacked access to water and another 500,000 didn’t have power as of Wednesday, reports said.

Price said Puerto Rico is receiving sufficient funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but that additional aid might be needed

“The longer-term issue of whether there might be some CDBG money, for example, or some money for school reconstruction — that’s a live issue and I think we need to take a look at it,” Price said.

At the beginning of this month, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund had almost $45 billion left in it. Under the most recent projections, before the big Jan. 7 earthquake, the agency expected to spend about $10 billion of that by the end of this fiscal year Sept. 30.

Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, ranking member on the Transportation-HUD subcommittee, said he would support additional aid for Puerto Rico if needed but wants to see the results of a damage assessment first. “There’s still a lot of money that is still not there yet,” he said, referring to previous hurricane aid that has been held up, with some of it released Wednesday. “We’ll see what the needs are.”

A Democratic aide said a supplemental clearly would have been needed if the administration continued to withhold previous disaster assistance to Puerto Rico. “The administration’s overdue decision to begin releasing funding changes the terms of the discussion around a supp, but no final decisions have been made,” the aide said, speaking on condition of not being identified.

The White House isn’t currently looking at providing additional aid to Puerto Rico to respond to the recent earthquakes, a source with knowledge of administration discussions said.

Hurricane aid finally flowing

After months of delay, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has agreed to let Puerto Rico gain access to nearly $8.3 billion in disaster mitigation funding.

The decision to publish guidelines for the aid in the Federal Register means the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory can begin tapping money aimed at helping communities withstand future disasters. Puerto Rico is now suffering from earthquakes that damaged hundreds of homes as it awaits the promised aid.

“This represents an advance in the disbursement of emergency funds that we need so much,” said Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, the island’s Republican congressional delegate, who hailed the decision in a statement.

The money had been caught in a political crossfire between Democrats pushing for immediate delivery and the Trump administration, which expressed worries about corruption. A HUD official confirmed Wednesday that a notice would now be issued outlining rules for the grant money, a key hurdle that had kept the aid from flowing.

The decision to release the funds was first reported by Politico.

The move came more than four months after HUD blew past a Sept. 4 deadline set by Congress last year (PL 116-20) to publish the notice. In a letter to HUD last week, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and other senior Democrats said it was “unconscionable” for the department to hold up the aid by not publishing the notice. “HUD’s failure to do so is a violation of the law,” they wrote.

The so-called mitigation funding is designed to lessen the impact of future disasters. It could be used for such things as protecting water treatment systems from future floods, or elevating homes that lie in a floodplain.

Congress first directed HUD to provide mitigation funding as part of a disaster relief package for communities across the country in February 2018 (PL 115-123), through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief program. The directive forced HUD to write new regulations governing the use of such money.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson first told Congress the regulations needed for the public notice would be issued by May 1 of last year. But that deadline was missed, and a subsequent draft was held up in a White House review.

Last August, HUD awarded mitigation funding to nine states but held back the aid for Puerto Rico, citing corruption concerns. The island at the time was rocked by a scandal that forced the abrupt resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, along with corruption charges against several members of his administration.

That holdup prompted Congress to set the Sept. 4 deadline for an aid notice. But HUD ignored it.