Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017 as a Category 4 hurricane, causing significant devastation across the island and the second-largest blackout in history. The Trump administration also contributed to an estimated 2,975 deaths because of its slow response, which failed to provide Puerto Rico with adequate resources or properly trained emergency personnel to match the severity of the situation on the ground.
As a result, American citizens are still reeling from the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years. Yet, President Donald Trump has signaled that his administration will honor only a small portion of funding originally promised, including suggesting disaster relief funds would be funneled toward building a border wall. In addition, Congress has repeatedly let opportunities to act lapse. Congress must take immediate action to help Puerto Rico and should consider the actions described below.
Congress must provide additional FY 2019 NAP funds
The Nutritional Assistance Program (NAP) is critical for Puerto Rican families—especially for children and the elderly, who are the largest groups of NAP recipients. In fact, an estimated 97 percent of NAP participants have a monthly income below half the poverty line. Others who live below the poverty line remain with limited or no access to these benefits due to the program’s limited funding.
In 2018, Congress allocated $1.27 billion to NAP in order to help with Puerto Rico’s post-Maria reconstruction efforts. However, NAP funds will be fully expended by March 2019, leaving more than 1.3 million Puerto Rican families facing benefit cuts of more than one-third. In addition, 100,000 more families would lose NAP benefits altogether for the remaining six months of fiscal year 2019.
The omnibus was an ideal vehicle to allocate the $600 million dollars that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello asked for in additional disaster assistance NAP funding for FY 2019. But appropriators decided it was best to keep the issue separate from the omnibus and to address the NAP disaster supplemental cliff later.
The problem with kicking the can down the road is that there is no clear timeline for when Congress plans to tackle this issue. Puerto Rican families continue to suffer from unemployment and food insecurity following hurricanes Irma and Maria. They deserve to be able to put food on the table for their families, and Congress should address this much-needed funding now.
Congress must hold FEMA accountable for limiting the use of already-appropriated and allocated disaster funds
A year ago, Congress approved the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA), which contained important provisions regarding how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can implement disaster assistance in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ recovery after Hurricane Maria.
BBA section 20601 amended the Stafford Act, which authorizes FEMA to provide assistance in order to repair and reconstruct destroyed public facilities, such as schools and hospitals:
Sec. 20601. The Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency may provide assistance, pursuant to section 428 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.), for critical services as defined in section 406 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act for the duration of the recovery for incidents DR-4336-PR, DR-4339-PR, DR-4340-USVI, and DR-4335-USVI to—
(1) replace or restore the function of a facility or system to industry standards without regard to the pre-disaster condition of the facility or system; and
(2) replace or restore components of the facility or system not damaged by the disaster where necessary to fully effectuate the replacement or restoration of disaster-damaged components to restore the function of the facility or system to industry standards.
The standard established in the Stafford Act is “pre-disaster condition,” which makes key critical infrastructure susceptible to another disaster because it would mean building these facilities back up without added resiliency and security. The BBA, however, authorized FEMA to use the “industry standards” criteria for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Applying the “industry standards” criteria to schools would mean rebuilding them to meet current hurricane and earthquake codes, which would mean sturdier and safer facilities.
However, earlier this month, El Nuevo Día reported that FEMA reduced its own cost estimate—from $1.4 billion to $425 million—in much needed funds to repair 64 schools damaged by Hurricane Maria. FEMA has informed the government of Puerto Rico that it will not authorize building them back up using the “industry standard”—opting to not apply BBA Section 20601 as intended.* As FEMA Director Brock Long resigns amid “controversy,” Congress should ensure critical infrastructure is soundly rebuilt so that Puerto Rican families send their children to safe, modern facilities.
Congress should prevent President Trump from diverting disaster and flood prevention funds for a border wall
In September 2018, we learned that Trump manipulated the budget process to divert $10 million from FEMA to put immigrant families in detention camps. This was at a time when North Carolina was about to get hit by Hurricane Florence and the reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico were still woefully far from completion.
In January 2019, news broke that the Trump administration could illegally pull billions in funding—set aside for areas damaged by natural disasters, including Puerto Rico—from the Army Corps of Engineers to build his ill-conceived border wall. And just last week, White House plans to divert disaster aid intended for Puerto Rico to illegally build his unpopular border wall resurfaced.
Trump has no regard for Puerto Rican families. He disregarded overabundant evidence reported by experts, the media, and the admissions of his own FEMA director that FEMA’s efforts fell far short. But that did not stop him from boasting about this “unsung success.” As a result of his repeated examples of disaster racism, almost 3,000 mostly preventable deaths occurred because of hurricane Maria and the unacceptable response of his administration to the ensuing crisis.
Congress must help prepare the island to withstand another disaster. That includes preventing Trump from ever being able to raid funds from important programs—such as FEMA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery funding, and the Army Corps of Engineers—because his administration has demonstrated blatant disregard for the lives and safety of fellow American citizens.
Congress must ensure Puerto Rico receives crucial, HUD-approved funding
On February 1, 2018, Congress approved $1.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds and on April 10, 2018, approved an additional $18.5 billion of CDBG-DR funds for the post-Maria reconstruction of Puerto Rico.
HUD approved a plan to use the first $1.5 billion for housing, economic revitalization, and infrastructure on July 30, 2018. A formal execution of the grant agreement between HUD and the government of Puerto Rico was signed on September 20, 2018.
But more than a year after Congress approved the emergency funding, not a penny of this grant has been spent on the urgently needed post-disaster reconstruction activities that Congress designated it for.
Additionally, HUD has yet to publish the plan guidelines for the use of the next $8.5 billion in CDBG-DR funds, which is required from the government of Puerto Rico. Congress needs to demand immediate corrective action from HUD to speed up the release of these urgently needed CDBG-DR funds for the reconstruction of the hurricane-ravaged island.
The burden hurricanes Irma and Maria left behind requires immediate Congressional attention. Congress must pass supplemental legislation to address urgently needed NAP funds for Puerto Rico that will run out in March; hold HUD accountable for dispersing already allocated funds; make clear its intent on the BBA; and rein in Trump’s out-of-control immigration budget manipulation for his enforcement practices. These, along with other urgent matters—such as the looming Medicaid cliff; structural Medicaid funding disparities for Puerto Rico; and the need to extend the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) to all eligible families in Puerto Rico—make it clear that aggressive congressional oversight and legislation to address fundamental inequities for Puerto Rico are both sorely needed.
*Authors’ note: The presentation with this information is on file with the authors.
Enrique Fernández-Toledo is the director of the Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Rafael Medina is senior media coordinator at the Center. Erin Cohan is the chief of staff and vice president at the Center.