Biden administration releases billions in relief for Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico would receive more than eight billion dollars in Hurricane Maria recovery money withheld during former President Donald Trump’s tenure.

The country would also have “onerous” restrictions removed regarding how it can access and spend a larger pool of disaster relief money, the White House said on Monday.

The combined moves were the latest actions from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to broadly reset the Federal Government’s relationship with the territory, releasing billions of dollars of financial aid years after it had been approved by Congress.

Marcia Fudge, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), said in a statement.

“The actions taken by HUD today will unlock access to funds Puerto Rico needs to recover from past disasters and build resilience to future storms, while ensuring transparency and accountability.”

Of the roughly 67 billion dollars in aid Congress assigned in response to the 2017 storm, about 17.8 billion dollars, or less than a third of the amount, has been disbursed.

The money being released came from the agency’s Community Development Block Grant Mitigation Programme, designed to help the island build resiliency against future disasters.

The island’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, welcomed the development.

“Without a doubt, this is great news for PR (Puerto Rico),” said Pierluisi on Twitter.

“This will allow the (local housing department) to streamline the work and invest effectively in the recovery of our Island.”

The federal housing agency named an internal monitor to supervise the island’s emergency aid in January 2020.

The Biden administration on Monday announced it would eliminate the requirement for a review by a financial monitor.

It will also do away with incremental grant obligations and additional oversight from the island’s financial oversight board.

In February, 1.3 billion dollars in federal money were approved, also from the same HUD programme.

Another 4.9 billion dollars had restrictions loosened. One official from the federal agency then described the development to the Miami Herald as “resetting the relationship” between Puerto Rico and Washington.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education released nearly one billion dollars in federal funds to assist the island’s schools in responding to recent emergencies, including the pandemic.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that the actions to release the aid and remove restrictions were the “latest in an ongoing whole-of-government effort to support the island’s recovery and renewal.’’

A string of compounding natural disasters has devastated Puerto Rico during the last few years. Hurricane Maria, in September 2017, killed thousands, destroyed critical infrastructure and wrought an estimated 90 billion dollars in damage.

Then came a sequence of earthquakes in the south-west of the island, in December 2019 left many without home or living in damaged houses. The Coronavirus, which had killed more than 2,000 people in Puerto Rico, soon followed.

Trump and former HUD Secretary Ben Carson repeatedly expressed concerns about possible mismanagement of aid within the island’s local government.

The former president called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth,” and his administration established strict safeguards on disaster money.

Since taken office, the Biden administration has been working to reverse the Trump-era policies, cutting red tape in the way Puerto Rico accesses relief aid.

The Biden campaign plan for Puerto Rico committed to ordering HUD and other federal agencies to collaborate with the island’s government so that federal funding be “deployed efficiently.”

Fudge, echoing the president’s promise, added that the administration was “committed to an ongoing partnership with Puerto Rico to empower the island’s communities and help them build back better.” (tca/dpa/NAN)