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White House announces $11.6B for Puerto Rico for recovery from 2017’s Hurricane Maria

The federal government will award an $11.6 billion US aid package to Puerto Rico, focused on the territory’s energy and education systems, to help the island recover from the devastation brought by 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the White House said on Friday.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) will provide $9.6 billion in funding for the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority to make replacements, repairs and improvements to equipment and buildings, the White House said.

An additional $2 billion grant for Puerto Rico’s Education Department will “focus on restoring school buildings and educational facilities across the island,” the White House said.

Puerto Rico was already struggling financially before the deadly hurricane struck three years ago, and filed a form of municipal bankruptcy for the commonwealth in 2017 to restructure about $120 billion of debt and obligations.

Since then, the U.S. commonwealth has been hit by more hurricanes, earthquakes, the coronavirus pandemic and political upheaval, and has been the target of increased federal scrutiny into its use of U.S. aid. A large portion of its financial distress was linked to the territory’s power utility.

Meanwhile, Republican President Donald Trump is working to woo Hispanic voters in the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election, where he is in a tight race against Democrat Joe Biden.

Biden said Trump “has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families” in a speech on Tuesday in Kissimmee, Fla., where many people settled after fleeing Maria’s devastation.

In addition to Florida, other states with significant Puerto Rican populations whose outcomes are considered up in the air for presidential electoral college votes are Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, though it’s no guarantee they would vote solely based on aid for the island.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez in a series of tweets thanked the White House for the aid.

Trump dismissed critics of White House’s response to Maria

But Nydia Velazquez, a congresswoman from New York born in Puerto Rico, accused the Trump administration of having “delayed, dragged its feet and resisted allocating these badly needed funds.”

“Now, forty-six days before the election, the administration has finally seen fit to release these funds,” she said in a statement.

Florida Democrat Darren Soto, whose father was born in Puerto Rico, was even more pointed.

“This latest political tactic is an insult to the Island and everyone who died as a result of President Trump’s failure,” the congressman tweeted. “We see right through him.”

In this July 12, 2018 photo, a worker from the Puerto Rico Power Authority works to restore power in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. The island’s electrical grid has often been battered by Atlantic hurricanes. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/The Associated Press)

Some Democrats criticized the administration for what they characterized as a lacklustre relief effort compared to hurricanes and storms that hit mainland U.S. earlier in Trump’s presidency. The mayor of San Juan called the president “abominable” for lobbing paper towels into a crowd when he visited Puerto Rico after the hurricane.

The White House also fended off criticism over a rebuilding contract won by a Montana firm that had ties to Trump’s interior secretary at the time.

LISTEN l As It Happens interview with Puerto Rican lawmaker in 2019:

Florida Democratic Congressman Darren Soto argues that the way President Trump is treating Puerto Rico is more evidence that the island territory should become a state. 6:34

Trump nevertheless said he graded his administration’s response to Maria a “10.”

While Puerto Rican officials lost track of deaths caused by Maria shortly after the storm’s arrival, reaching a total in the 60s, a much-publicized study by researchers at George Washington University several months later looking at excess mortality rates estimated that deaths attributable to the hurricane were closer to 3,000.

Trump took great issue with the estimate from the Washington-based school, asserting without evidence that it was politically biased against him.

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