Federal Funds for Puerto Rico Disaster Relief and the Long Road Ahead

Congress is nearing completion on a disaster relief bill which will provide additional funds for Puerto Rico, as well as for States which have been hit by natural disasters since Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The bill had been delayed by controversy over a surprising question: Has Puerto Rico already received all the funding the Island needs?

The discussion has been made more complicated by confusion among several different numbers:

  • The amount of damage caused to Puerto Rico was estimated at $91 billion (also reported as more than $90 billion, $94 billion, and up to $95 billion). President Trump tweeted this number as the total amount of aid received by Puerto Rico.
  • The amount of federal aid allocated to Puerto Rico was $42.3 billion at that time. This was funding committed to Puerto Rico, but most of it has not actually been provided to the Island. At the time, $20.37 billion of that had been obligated.
  • The amount of federal aid received by Puerto Rico was about $12.62 billion at that time.

An article in Roll Call brings out an example. HUD funds to the tune of about $20 billion have been allocated, but the first installment of these funds, $1.5 billion, was received earlier this year, 17 months after the hurricane. That money is expected to begin reaching people affected by the hurricane in June, if all goes well.

Red tape delays

A report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this spring concluded that red tape was the cause of the funding delays in Puerto Rico.

The report pointed out not only the enormous discrepancy between the amounts allocated and the amounts received, but also described some specific problems. For example, some towns had repairs approved and started, but then did not receive funds in a timely manner. Workers could not be paid, so the repair work was stopped. In many cases, the funds have still not been received, and the towns are not in a position to pay the workers until those funds arrive.

The HUD funds, according to Roll Call, do not have permanent authorization, and regulations for grant applications have to be created anew after every disaster. Understaffing and inefficiency lead to serious delays in the program. HUD Secretary Ben Carson expressed hope for an end to the rumors that HUD is intentionally delaying disbursement of funds.

However, federal officials continue to claim that they aren’t sure Puerto Rico can be trusted with the money. The GAO report pointed out that special processes were put in place to build additional accountability into the fund disbursement. These processes added layers of complexity, especially since they were not familiar to the federal workers who should have been able to help Puerto Rican officials.

Disaster funding timelines

Funds are still being spent on recovery from Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Disaster relief funds from the 2017 hurricane season are still largely unspent in other territories and states as well as in Puerto Rico.

The long process may add to the confusion over the numbers.

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