FEMA has money to spend in Puerto Rico, but Congress will need to act soon

Farmer Victor Lozada searches for items that can be salvage from his shed in Puerto Rico that was completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria on Friday, September 22, 2017.
Farmer Victor Lozada searches for items that can be salvage from his shed in Puerto Rico that was completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria on Friday, September 22, 2017. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico less than a week ago, but the Federal Emergency Management Administration has more relief funding available than it did after Hurricane Harvey.

After Harvey hit the Houston area, Congress passed a $15.25 billion hurricane relief bill when President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democrats. FEMA was only a few days away from running out of money.

Nearly half of the hurricane relief package that passed in early September, $7.4 billion, is going to FEMA, allowing it to stay afloat while it responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico and cleanup in Florida after Hurricane Irma. A FEMA spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the agency has just over $5 billion in uncommitted disaster relief money as of Monday morning.

That money won’t last long. Congress will likely need to pass additional funding bills to manage long-term recovery efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico before the end of the year.

“Our focus is still continuing to be on the life-saving efforts and the immediate disaster response efforts which are still currently under way,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

A Republican staffer with knowledge of the appropriations process said that federal funding for hurricane relief will be “fine until mid-October” and that Congress will likely vote on an additional funding bill in the next three weeks.

“Congress has done its job,” the staffer said.

But Congress only supplies the money. It’s up to local and federal agencies to effectively manage it after a hurricane.

On Monday, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson called on the U.S. military to provide more search-and-rescue teams to Puerto Rico. Nelson said last week it will cost much more than $15 billion to manage relief efforts in Florida and Puerto Rico.

The White House said Monday that it’s doing everything possible to manage the short-term response in Puerto Rico. Homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA administrator Brock Long arrived in Puerto Rico on Monday to assess the situation and will inform the White House about what is needed most.

But short-term efforts like search-and-rescue missions or restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid are different than long-term projects like hardening the power grid to ensure it can withstand a major hurricane. The FEMA money focuses on the short-term effort, but months from now Republicans and Democrats will inevitably debate the merits of long-term relief for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Texas has 38 votes in Congress and Florida has 29, and if they stick together the majority-Republican states can be an important voting bloc in a contentious negotiation.

In contrast, Puerto Rico has one non-voting delegate.

“It is our commitment to do everything in our power to ensure that our response to this hurricane is the same as it would be in any other territory or state of this great nation,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at a press conference on Monday in Puerto Rico. “This territory of Puerto Rico has been impacted by not one but three storms. Irma, 10 days later, Maria, and throughout it a fiscal crisis that it continues to confront.”

Rubio’s office will have two or three staffers on the island to assist Puerto Ricans with disaster claims, and the senator said he’s exploring the possibility of low-interest loans to help Puerto Rico rebuild.

Puerto Rico’s power utility declared a form of bankruptcy in July and the Puerto Rican government sought bankruptcy relief in exchange for supervised fiscal belt-tightening in May, further underscoring the need for federal assistance.

But the Trump administration isn’t making any promises on the size and scope of long-term hurricane relief. The Department of Housing and Urban Development manages long-term disaster relief funding through the Community Development Block Grant Program. Trump wanted to eliminate that program earlier this year and some conservatives have voted against hurricane relief bills with long-term HUD funding in the past.

“Once we have a greater insight into the full assessment of damage, then we'll be able to determine what additional funds are needed,” Huckabee Sanders said.

But while Texas and Florida are full of millions of voters who stand to benefit from a massive hurricane relief package akin to the $50 billion New York and New Jersey got after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Puerto Rico is not. A majority of Puerto Ricans supported statehood in referendums in 2012 and 2017, but Congress hasn’t shown a willingness to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

“Make no mistake — this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million U.S. citizens,” Rosselló said in a statement. “We will need the full support of the U.S. government. People cannot forget that we are U.S. citizens — and proud of it. Given Puerto Rico’s fragile economic recovery prior to the storms, we ask the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress to take swift action to help Puerto Rico rebuild.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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