Why Florida’s orange growers will get more money than Puerto Rico’s broken power grid

Oranges are encrusted in a cocoon of ice as citrus grower John Kirkland of Troy S. Bronson Partnership protected their trees from the sub freezing temperatures by spraying water on them, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, in Apopka, Fla.
Oranges are encrusted in a cocoon of ice as citrus grower John Kirkland of Troy S. Bronson Partnership protected their trees from the sub freezing temperatures by spraying water on them, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, in Apopka, Fla. AP

Congress is poised to pass its first disaster relief plan since October on Thursday as part of a massive government spending deal, but the funds doled out to Puerto Rico fall far short of what Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked for in November, and more money may not be on the horizon.

Rosselló asked for $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild and remake Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage and triggered an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland.

He got about $17 billion.

Included in the $17 billion total is $2 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid, about $15 billion less than Rosselló requested, and $4.8 billion for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid fund that was set to run out of money in a matter of weeks.

The $2 billion for Puerto Rico’s electric grid, which affects about 3.5 million people, is less than what Congress secured for Florida’s citrus industry after Hurricane Irma destroyed most of last year’s crop, resulting in a loss of about $760 million and higher orange juice prices.

Florida’s citrus industry, which employs about 45,000 people, received $300 million more than Puerto Rico’s power grid.

“Let’s put it this way, we cannot miss the fact that obviously we lack representation in Congress,” Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration executive director Carlos Mercader said. “We don’t have two senators, we don’t have four or five congressmen to be like Florida. Florida is one of the biggest delegations in Congress, and the storm in Florida happened before the storm in Puerto Rico and they were working for [citrus funding] to be included even before this last supplemental, and they got it here.”

Mercader said Thursday’s disaster funding agreement “was a very good step towards recovery” and said it was a massive improvement over the last disaster funding bill passed in October, which didn’t include any specific funds for Puerto Rico.

“We know this is a process and we’re glad that Congress included Puerto Rico,” Mercader said. “We’re glad that Democrats and Republicans were able to agree on this. Now we’re hopeful we can continue to work with them on the steps that need to be taken.”

But a Democratic aide said it was unclear if a Republican-controlled Congress will have the appetite for another massive disaster deal in 2018.

“With GOP in control, I think a lot of people around here would be surprised if we see another one this year,” the aide said. “Whether we see one next year will depend on who controls Congress.”

Republicans frequently chafe at disaster relief bills that include billions for long-term disaster resilience, and large portions of Puerto Rico’s $94 billion request involve making the island stronger for the next hurricane rather than simply rebuilding what was destroyed.

Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio praised the funds for Puerto Rico and Florida on the Senate floor after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to a massive $300 billion spending deal on Wednesday. The deal includes more funding for the military and domestic programs, along with nearly $90 billion in disaster relief for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, California and the Virgin Islands.

“While no one wants to have a hurricane and no one wants to have a natural disaster, I think this is a response that we should be happy about,” Rubio said on Wednesday. “And I think it is a testament to the sorts of things that we can achieve here in the Senate when we can put aside our differences on other issues and work together on this.”

“Senator Rubio and I have been talking about all the things we have done together in trying to get this disaster aid package to finally come to the point at which we can say we are so thankful that we see a path forward,” Nelson said.

The massive aid package also includes a number of Florida-specific provisions, such as $2.7 billion to help schools affected by an influx of students after the hurricanes and $15 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild multiple dikes, including the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. It also includes funding for beach nourishment, Everglades restoration efforts that were hampered by Irma and funds to remove debris in the Florida Keys.

“We still have canals in Monroe County where there are refrigerators and couches and lawn furniture sitting in the canal,” Rubio said. “There is money now under disaster relief for NOAA to go in and complete the task and get these things out of canals so they become navigable again.”

Mercader said he’s hopeful that Congress will continue to pay attention to Puerto Rico even as other issues like immigration dominate the agenda in Washington.

“In Puerto Rico we still have 27 percent of the population without electricity,” Mercader said. “Whenever you have a big number of U.S. citizens without electricity for 130 days the issue cannot be forgotten.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty