Puerto Rico gains access to long-delayed disaster money

Parroquia Inmaculada Concepcion church was heavily damaged after a 6.4 earthquake hit just south of the island in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, on January 8, 2019.


By DAVID LERMAN | CQ-Roll Call | Published: January 15, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — After months of delay, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has agreed to let Puerto Rico gain access to nearly $8.3 billion in disaster mitigation funding.

The decision to publish guidelines for the aid in the Federal Register means the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory can begin tapping money aimed at helping communities withstand future disasters. Puerto Rico is now suffering from earthquakes that damaged hundreds of homes as it awaits the promised aid.

“This represents an advance in the disbursement of emergency funds that we need so much,” said Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, the island’s Republican congressional delegate, who hailed the decision in a statement.

The money had been caught in a political crossfire between Democrats pushing for immediate delivery and the Trump administration, which expressed worries about corruption. A HUD official confirmed Wednesday that a notice would now be issued outlining rules for the grant money, a key hurdle that had kept the aid from flowing.

The decision to release the funds was first reported by Politico.

The move came more than four months after HUD blew past a Sept. 4 deadline set by Congress last year to publish the notice. In a letter to HUD last week, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and other senior Democrats said it was “unconscionable” for the department to hold up the aid by not publishing the notice. “HUD’s failure to do so is a violation of the law,” they wrote.

The so-called mitigation funding is designed to lessen the impact of future disasters. It could be used for such things as protecting water treatment systems from future floods, or elevating homes that lie in a floodplain.

Congress first directed HUD to provide mitigation funding as part of a disaster relief package for communities across the country in February 2018, through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief program. The directive forced HUD to write new regulations governing the use of such money.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson first told Congress the regulations needed for the public notice would be issued by May 1 of last year. But that deadline was missed, and a subsequent draft was held up in a White House review.

Last August, HUD awarded mitigation funding to nine states but held back the aid for Puerto Rico, citing corruption concerns. The island at the time was rocked by a scandal that forced the abrupt resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, along with corruption charges against several members of his administration.

That holdup prompted Congress to set the Sept. 4 deadline for an aid notice. But HUD ignored it.

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