September 30, 2023

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration announced it will release $ 1.3 billion in aid that Puerto Rico can use to protect against future climate disasters and is beginning to lift some restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on spending after the island Should help Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Government officials, who cited the move as a first step towards tackling racial inequality through action to combat climate change, said they wanted to relax the boundaries that the Trump administration put on the morning of Jan. 20 for an additional $ 4.9 billion Relief supplies set hours before the former president resigned.

Reconstruction from Puerto Rico to Maria, which devastated the island more than three years ago, has been far slower than recovery in other parts of the country like Texas and Florida, which were also hit by major disasters that year. This is in part because the Department of Housing and Urban Development had curtailed Puerto Rico’s aid funds, which current and former officials and policy experts said did not apply to other beneficiaries.

“This slow payout rate has dampened Puerto Rico’s recovery,” said Rosanna Torres, Washington director of the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rican think tank.

The money is part of $ 20 billion that Congress allocated to HUD after Maria for recovery and protection from future storms in Puerto Rico. According to the federal government, only $ 138 million, or about 0.7 percent, was spent, a far lower rate than the funding Congressional HUD provided to Texas, Florida, and other parts of the US in rebuilding after similar disasters to help.

That discrepancy reflects senior Trump officials’ insistence that Puerto Rico provides the HUD with more information and records than state governments about its spending plans before funds are released, according to Stan Gimont, the HUD’s deputy assistant secretary at the time for funding programs.

“It seemed like an exaggeration,” said Gimont, who left the HUD in 2019 and is now a senior community recovery advisor at Hagerty Consulting. “It made it a really arduous process.”

The Trump administration’s reluctance to provide funding to Puerto Rico reflected a number of motivations, according to Gimont and two other former senior administrative officials who asked not to be identified because they feared it would or would be their current one upset future employer.

One of them was the concern that the island would have difficulty spending so much money properly, creating the possibility that some of it would be misplaced. That concern was exaggerated, Puerto Rican officials say.

Kenneth McClintock, former Secretary of State of Puerto Rico and Senate President, said the island had an admittedly slow and bureaucratic process for approving construction projects. But the Trump administration also labeled Puerto Rico as more corrupt than other jurisdictions and initially delayed federal funding, he said.

“Trump believed that Puerto Rico was the most corrupt place in the nation,” he said. “We have corruption,” said McClintock, but said he doesn’t see it as worse than any other part of the country.

Through a spokesman, Ben Carson, the HUD secretary under President Donald J. Trump, declined to comment. A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

Concerns about corruption or mismanagement led to a worse problem, former Trump officials said: Three and a half years after Maria, much of the damage has yet to be repaired.

“The money was used to promote recovery,” said Gimont. “If you don’t spend the money, you’re certainly not going to promote recovery.”

Mr Biden had addressed the slow release of disaster funds from Puerto Rico as a problem during his presidential campaign and pledged to reverse it.

The office of Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi, who was sworn in on January 2, referred questions to the Puerto Rico Department of Housing that the secretary was not immediately available for an interview.

Trump officials hampered the Biden team’s ability to deliver on that promise. On the morning of January 20, the day of inauguration, Brian Montgomery, who was about to step down as assistant secretary of the HUD, approved a request from Puerto Rico to get access to $ 4.9 billion to counter the island protect future storms.

In approving that application, however, Mr. Montgomery added requirements that made it difficult for Puerto Rico to spend the money, which would have forced the island to go through a separate approval process for each and every project funded with those dollars. On Monday, HUD overturned the decision and asked Puerto Rico to reapply for $ 4.9 billion so that HUD can approve its application without restrictions.

In an interview, Montgomery said the conditions imposed by the HUD on Puerto Rico were justified by the fact that the island seldom suffered major disasters and therefore lacked the experience of handling large amounts of federal disaster relief that some states provide to have.

Mr. Montgomery also said the conditions imposed in the January 20 letter to Puerto Rico were not intended to tie the hands of the Biden government. He said the goal is to make more funds available to Puerto Rico, under conditions he deemed appropriate, to protect public funds.

“The secretary and I went out of our way to get this money on our watch because we worked very closely with Puerto Rico,” said Montgomery.

A HUD spokesman Michael Burns called the agency’s moves on Monday as an attempt to reset its relationship with Puerto Rico. “The actions we are taking today will help the island strengthen its resilience to future storms and floods,” he said.