Don't hold Puerto Rico hostage: Pass the Earthquake Supplemental

Don't hold Puerto Rico hostage: Pass the Earthquake Supplemental
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Still recovering from the disastrous Hurricane Maria of 2017, Puerto Rico was dealt another body blow on Jan. 7 this year when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the Island. About 8,300 houses were damaged and 2,500 were declared uninhabitable. 

Aftershocks have caused more damage, including a May 2 quake which displaced 66 families in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The U.S. government initially looked like it would provide immediate help. In February the House passed the Puerto Rico Earthquake Supplemental to help Puerto Rico recover from the earthquake and ongoing aftershocks. But then President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE threatened to veto the bill and the Senate refused to take any action. With the Senate back in session this week the question remains whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power MORE (R-Ky.) can be persuaded to pass the Earthquake Supplemental or include it in the next COVID-19 bill.  

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The Earthquake Supplemental provides $4.7 billion in funds for a broad range of disaster recovery and reconstruction activities. The bill is far reaching, as it needs to be to address the cumulative impact of earthquakes, preceded by a major hurricane. According to Puerto Rican economist Jose Alameda, the cost of the January earthquakes can be quantified in five areas:  infrastructure, productive capacity, mortality and morbidity, indirect costs (e.g. tourism and real estate) and migration. The bill aims to offset the human and physical damage of the earthquakes and ongoing aftershocks. 

In its veto threat, the Trump administration argued that Puerto Rico “is already projected to receive $90 billion in disaster funds.” Not true. Federal agencies have only allocated $45 billion in disaster funds for Hurricane Maria, even though the damage it caused is estimated at close to $100 billion. 

Worse, of the $45 billion allocated for Hurricane Maria, less than half — $16 billion — has been disbursed. Most of this money has been spent by FEMA to provide for the immediate needs of the disaster victims (e.g. water, food, shelter, medical care, etc.), support local government emergency response and mitigate hazards in future disasters.

The other large piece of the $45 billion pot is $20 billion in HUD’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for long-term recovery and reconstruction, including housing, infrastructure and economic revitalization. Of the $20 billion allocated, only $3 billion has been released by the Federal government, in part because the government of Puerto Rico is required to comply with multiple conditions to allay Trump’s concerns over corruption.  

These conditions are being imposed even though a HUD financial monitor has already been assigned to oversee the CDBG funds. To add insult to injury, the only government officials associated with the hurricane recovery who have been arrested to date worked for FEMA.

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So for the Trump administration to claim, as it does in its veto threat, that there is enough money in Puerto Rico’s disaster pipeline is absolutely misleading. First, the federal government has not released the bulk of the recovery and reconstruction funds almost three years after Hurricane Maria. Second, the $45 billion is authorized to be spent on hurricane-related activities, not the earthquakes.

In its veto threat, the Trump administration also objects to “the creation of in excess of $15 billion in new Federal subsidies through the tax code” without explaining that $14 billion of that amount are Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits. These credits would put money directly in the pockets of working Puerto Ricans and pump money straight into the economy without local government participation. So, if the Trump administration is really concerned about government corruption, this is precisely the type of mechanism to use to aid those in greatest need. 

Shortly after the January earthquake Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) flew to Puerto Rico and said, “I will work my tail off to make sure that all the resources that can be available will be available.” In February, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' Graham vows GOP will accept election results after Trump comments MORE (R-Fla.) tweeted, “PuertoRico needs more help after the recent earthquakes added to its already existing challenges. From my role on the Senate Appropriations Committee we will work on an aid plan that can pass in both the Senate & House & be signed by the President.” 

Trump’s veto threat put a halt to their plans. All Scott and Rubio had to offer after last week’s earthquake were thoughts and prayers.

But there is a path forward. The House and Senate are currently wrestling over the next COVID-19 stimulus bill. Democrats are pushing for more, Republicans for less.  

These struggles do not occur in a vacuum. Biden is running against Trump in Florida neck to neck. The Puerto Rico Earthquake Supplemental is ready to go. It would help the GOP senators and the president if they had something to show in November to Puerto Ricans voters in Florida. 

Puerto Ricans have been crippled and killed by three consecutive disasters — Hurricane Maria, the 2020 earthquakes and COVID-19 — in under three years. The Earthquake Supplemental awaits Senate action. Please don’t hold any more Puerto Rican lives hostage. 

Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a founding member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, a diaspora advocacy organization, and board member of Equally American, an organization seeking equal treatment for the U.S. territories through impact litigation. She heads the consulting firm Polivox787.