Newly obtained documents reveal that in the year and a half following Hurricane Maria, which caused an estimated $90 billion of damage in Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency only sent $3.3 billion in federal disaster aid to local authorities in the U.S. territory. Not only do these records undercut Trump’s claim at the time that Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in federal aid, but they make Trump’s new $13 billion FEMA aid package for Puerto Rico look even more politically motivated.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing around 3,000 people and destroying the islands’ electrical system. A year and a half later, in April 2019, Trump tweeted that “Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money.” It was clear at the time that Trump’s number was incorrect, so CREW requested records from FEMA to see how much money had actually been allocated and granted to local authorities by the agency for disaster relief in Puerto Rico.
While these records are not a full accounting of the entire federal government’s disaster aid to the territory, they show that much of the $15 billion obligated by FEMA had not actually been spent.
What we do know is that by April 10, 2019, when CREW sent the request, FEMA had granted only $3.3 billion in disaster relief to the government of Puerto Rico, or just over 59% of obligated public assistance funds, the FEMA documents reveal. The agency had also delivered none of the $16 million obligated toward hazard mitigation.
The relatively small amount given to Puerto Rico’s government by FEMA in the aftermath of the hurricane calls into question the timing of last week’s White House announcement of a new $13 billion relief package for the territory. Trump’s announcement of $13 billion in aid just 46 days before the election, granted through FEMA and largely directed toward the government-owned Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority, is roughly four times the amount of money given to local authorities by the agency in the 18 months immediately following the disaster. At the time, Trump railed on Puerto Rico’s politicians for asking for relief, but now with the election approaching, his approach has changed dramatically.
The Puerto Rican population in Florida may well play a critical role in Trump’s performance in the state, one commentator pointed out. A large proportion of those who left the island following the hurricane settled in Florida.
If Trump is using federal disaster aid to boost support in a critical swing state just weeks before the election, it would be incredibly troubling, but hardly surprising. This would not be the first time he has used taxpayer dollars to advance his own political interests. In fact, withholding federal aid for political reasons is precisely what he was impeached for earlier this year.