White House weeks away from formal funding request for Puerto Rico aid, sources say
The White House is likely weeks away from a formal funding request for Puerto Rico, as the storm-ravaged island enters its sixth day without power, according to Trump administration and congressional sources.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is demanding that lawmakers approve a disaster aid package by week’s end to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from Hurricane Maria. But aides familiar with the devastation on the Caribbean islands say the government is far more focused on delivering resources right now than getting more cash from Congress.
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“The thing is, funding doesn’t help them. Getting people and supplies there is what needs to happen,” one administration aide said Tuesday. “There’s no crunch in the short term for cash.”
Still handling three simultaneous hurricane relief efforts, FEMA’s staff is stretched thin. But the agency’s disaster relief fund is still flush after Congress provided $15 billion in disaster aid, H.R. 601 (115), earlier this month, as well as another $6.7 billion that will kick in at the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1.
Advocates argue that funding for FEMA doesn’t mean Puerto Rico’s government can pay its own bills, however, including its already depleted Medicaid program.
While the federal government continues to calculate a damage estimate, responders deployed to the region are focused on logistics like getting food and water to millions of people who remain without power as temperatures hit 90 degrees and humidity hovers above 70 percent.
The administration contends that much of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is so damaged that officials can’t even begin damage assessment, meaning the federal government may not know for weeks how many roads, buildings or power lines will need to be rebuilt.
“The issue is not paying for any of this,” the administration source said. “It’s like: Paying for what?”
But Democrats say the administration’s response is already wholly anemic, accusing President Donald Trump of taking potshots at the ailing islanders while neglecting to deploy the full force of federal resources.
“We have the greatest military the world has ever seen,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, told reporters on Tuesday. “We know how to invade other nations. We know how to bring that equipment in. We have paratroopers. We have sailors. We have Marines. We have men and women who would want to help their fellow countrymen in their time of need. It’s time for the president to invoke that and to bring that type of response.”
Trump said Tuesday that he plans to travel to Puerto Rico early next week to survey damage, more than a dozen days after Maria compounded devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma earlier this month.
The president has fielded criticism for neglecting to visit the islands as quickly as he arrived in Texas and Florida following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But he told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that his administration is “getting really good marks for the work we’re doing” in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.