Puerto Rico Was Purposefully Denied Disaster Relief They Were Guaranteed By The Federal Government
It’s been more than two years since Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico and the recovery efforts have shown no signs of stopping anytime soon. Those efforts have been exponentially slowed down by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Two officials from the department, HUD head of Community Planning and Development David Woll and Chief Financial Officer Irving Dennis, appeared at a congressional hearing last week saying that they purposely missed a September deadline to release billions of dollars in hurricane recovery funds to the island.
Their reasoning behind the delayed money is simply a lack of trust between them and the U.S. territory’s housing agency to handle the money properly. This new development is a new chapter in the long dispute between the Trump administration and Puerto Rico over federal support following Hurricane Maria. President Trump has called Puerto Rico an “island with deep-rooted economic problems” and similar to what HUD officials voiced, he has stated that he doesn’t trust giving the U.S. territory more funds.
“We want to have a belt and suspenders plan in place to make sure that, A: we’re protecting taxpayers but, B: more importantly, that the money is going to the people of Puerto Rico and not being wasted or abused,” Woll told lawmakers.
While it’s already been two years since Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico has only received a third of the $43 billion Congress allocated toward hurricane recovery efforts, which includes the construction of rebuilding damaged homes.
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According to NBC News, HUD officials were supposed to file funding notices to 18 different states that were directly affected by natural disasters back on Sept. 4. The agency did indeed publish the notices expect for Puerto Rico. If the notice was filed, it would have let Puerto Rico start creating the framework for a plan to manage the allocated funds.
Despite the delay, Woll said at the hearing that the agency was committed to helping Puerto Rico but not without any proper oversight of future funds.
“All of us at HUD stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Puerto Rico,” Woll said at the hearing. “At HUD we are committed to the recovery of all Americans whose homes and communities were devastated by natural disasters, and we are steadfast in our stewardship of the funding and trust in us by you in your colleagues in Congress.”
During the hearing, Woll and Dennis voiced similar concerns about the lack of oversight when it comes to the financial troubles that have affected Puerto Rico for years. The two also brought up the recent resignation of Ricardo Rosselló as governor and the islands decade long debt issues as reasons why they delayed the funds.
“When you think of $20 billion going through an entity that has no infrastructure for that, that does not get developed overnight. When you think of the capacity they need, they need people, they need processes and they need technology,” Dennis said at the hearing. “We’re trying to make sure it is that there is good oversight and controls and policies in place.”
The hearing resulted in some members of Congress saying that the delay violated federal law that was set in the appropriations bill that included the funds.
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The statements from Woll and Dennis prompted some backlash from lawmakers who weren’t pleased to hear that funds were being withheld due to political reasoning. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chair of the Appropriations Committee, called HUD’s planned delay as “perpetual stonewalling.”
“No caveats. No carve-outs. No exemptions,” Lowey said. “It’s not just unacceptable: It is unlawful.”
The action from HUD was also criticized by top Republican on the subcommittee who also voiced their concerns on the delayed funds.
“Look, I understand that there may be factors outside of our witnesses’ control that led to miss this deadline,” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL). “But I’m troubled—I’m always troubled, and I don’t care which administration [does] it—when any administration doesn’t meet requirements set in statute.”
Going forward, Dennis and Woll say that a quicker disbursement of the money will happen once Puerto Rico’s housing department, Departamento de la Vivienda, can ensure the agency that it can handle the large incoming money being allocated to them. There have been concerns that the agency doesn’t have enough staffing and oversight to handle the large influx of money which again raises concerns about the mishandling of funds.
“No one more than Puerto Ricans want oversight, but what we’ve seen so far doesn’t work,” Miguel Soto-Class, founder and president of the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank, told NBC News. “We don’t want punishment disguised as oversight.”