KEY POINTS

  • White House will release $8.2 billion in aid to Puerto Rico
  • $20 billion was allocated in 2017, but half not disbursed yet
  • The delayed release has been attributed to civil unrest

Two years after Puerto Rico was devastated by two powerful hurricanes, the Trump administration is preparing to release $8.2 billion as disaster relief fund, still holding half of the promised relief. Officials blamed the delay on political volatility in the U.S. territory but the President may have other reasons to hold on to the fund.

The White House had estimated $20 billion in relief fund after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island in September 2017. However, just $1.5 billion had been disbursed, leaving many lawmakers and local leaders perplexed. Last week, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said withholding the aid funds was an “illegal activity” by the Trump administration.

Puerto Rico can access the latest tranche once a funding notice is issued detailing how the aid would be released, Politico reported. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was expected to publish the notice in September, but missed the deadline.

An HUD official told Politico that this was because they wanted to make sure certain financial safeguards were in place, citing recent civil unrest in Puerto Rico. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans successfully demanded the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who had been facing multiple allegations of corruption.

“Now that a full financial monitoring team is assembled and active, we can move forward with confidence that these disaster recovery funds will reach those who need them the most,” he said.

The aid disbursement comes after Democrats on the Hill pushed the White House to act following last week's 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Puerto Rico that killed at least one person and left 5,000 effectively homeless. The earthquake is estimated to have caused $100 million in damages – bad news for an island still grappling with the trail of 2017’s hurricanes.

While the HUD claimed that the funds weren’t sent to Puerto Rico over civil unrest concerns, Trump’s critics alleged that the withholding of aid has been done less out of concern about corruption and more as a way to punish the island’s leadership, which has been deeply critical of the president.

Trump has not hesitated to feud with the island’s leaders. In August, he called San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz “incompetent.” He also said Puerto Rico was “one of the most corrupt places on earth.”

Two firemen survey a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Guanica, one of the towns which appeared to suffer the worst damage on Puerto Rico's southwest coast Two firemen survey a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Guanica, one of the towns which appeared to suffer the worst damage on Puerto Rico's southwest coast Photo: AFP / Ricardo ARDUENGO