Democrats grill FEMA over inflated payments for Hurricane Maria

Democrats grill FEMA over inflated payments for Hurricane Maria
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Democrats during a Wednesday hearing seized on inflated estimates of financial assistance given in response to Hurricane Maria, showing the continued disconnect between President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE, federal emergency managers and the government of Puerto Rico.

Democrats focused on limited payments to Puerto Rico as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) leaders appeared before the House Homeland Security Committee, contradicting Trump on the amount the agency has spent on the disaster.

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“The federal response to Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago was an abject failure,” Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonPelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment DHS cyber agency to prioritize election security, Chinese threats Trump officials unveil rule allowing indefinite migrant family detentions MORE (D-Miss.) said in his opening remarks. “Unfortunately, Puerto Rico continues to pay the price. People there are also still suffering from disparate treatment by the president who continues to tweet his disdain for Puerto Ricans working to help their communities recover.”

Thompson flashed tweets from President Trump on the hearing room screen claiming that FEMA has spent $91 billion on the disaster.

“True or false?” Thompson asked acting FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor.

Gaynor said the tweets reflect what FEMA might one day spend on the 2017 disaster. So far, the agency has spent close to $42 billion.

But that figure appears to include money that has been requested of the agency but not yet paid out, according to a March fact check from The Washington Post. They estimate the government has received $11 billion.

Thompson said those delays have dried municipal coffers.

“They don’t have any more money to spend to do any work in their municipalities until they get reimbursed,” he said.

Gaynor said he’s concerned about approving payments in error that may later have to be paid back.

“Liquidity is a problem in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands. That why we want to be extra careful. Puerto Rico is $70 billion in debt,” Gaynor said. “What typically happens after a long disaster, a long recovery is years after when you try to rectify the records and make sure all the payments are correct, you have to do a clawback, and that’s what we don’t want to do.”

Democrats have long criticized the agency for its response to Hurricane Maria and other major disasters that hit the U.S. that year. Several asked Gaynor if the agency had a sufficient budget to respond to increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters.

“The 2017 disasters were a historical year in terms of cost and damage and impact on our citizens, but I think it’d be a big mistake to look at that as a one time event,” said Chris Currie, director of the Homeland Security and Justice Division at the Government Accountability Office. “Whether its 500 year floods, tornadoes like we’ve never seen before and huge wildfires, these events are happening every year, and it’s important that we figure out how to address these things.”

Rep. Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Second Democrat representing Trump district backs impeachment Hillicon Valley: Capital One faces investigation over massive breach | DHS warns of cyber vulnerability in small aircraft | Senate bill would ban 'addictive' social media features MORE (D-Ill.) asked Gaynor why, given that increasing intensity of events, the agency did not reference climate change in its most recent strategy plan.

The report is “agnostic to any hazards,” Gaynor said. “We are an all hazards agency.”

“Previous iterations of the report have addressed climate change directly,” Underwood said. “So if we’re going to have a proper level of preparedness in our country, I would hope that future iterations would address specific hazards we know have disproportionate effect on our national security.”