Screengrabs via YouTube: The White House, The Oregonian

The Facts —

  • President Donald Trump said in a series of tweets posted on 12 October that federal aid cannot remain in Puerto Rico “forever,” following damages from Hurricane Maria.

  • Trump said Congress will decide how much to spend to provide continued relief for the US territory. FEMA is the usual means of distributing funds following the designation of a disaster or state of emergency.
    • “The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is the primary funding source for disaster response and recovery.”
    • FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) receives annual funding from the federal government and is a “no-year” account, which means that unused funds roll over to the following year, to be available if and when needed.
  • In the course of usual procedure, if DRF funds become exhausted, Congress can act to replenish those funds.
    • This is done annually as well as on an as-needed basis. FEMA determines how to disperse funds to places where a disaster declaration has been approved by the president.
  • Disasters have been declared by Trump in Puerto Rico for both Hurricanes Maria and Irma, with over $200 million in disaster relief funds already allocated by FEMA to aid the island.

How Funding is Approved for a Disaster —

  • The typical disaster relief process, according to The Stafford Act Process for Declaring Emergencies and Major Disasters, and as described in an overview of FEMA processes, is as follows:
    • An event occurs.
    • The local government responds, and if overwhelmed, that local government calls for state assistance.
    • Local, state, federal, and volunteer organizations complete a Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) to determine need.
    • The state governor submits request for federal assistance to the President based on PDA.
    • FEMA evaluates the governor’s request and makes recommendations.
    • The President either approves the request or informs FEMA to inform the governor that the request has been denied.
    • If approved, the president’s declaration triggers the allocation of funds from the DRF, subject to FEMA review, from any or all of the following three categories of disaster aid:
      • Individual Assistance (IA)
        • This type of relief covers disaster housing for displaced individuals, grants for needs not covered by insurance, crisis counseling, and disaster-related unemployment assistance.
      • Public Assistance (PA)
        • This is FEMA’s largest funded program. It helps communities with the costs of emergency measures like removing debris and repairing or replacing structures such as public buildings, roads, bridges, and public utilities.
      • Hazard Mitigation
        • This type of aid helps cover the cost of prevention to hopefully help lessen the effects of a future disaster.
    • It’s important to note that even after the president issues an emergency or major disaster declaration, not all persons or entities affected by a disaster are eligible for disaster assistance.

“FEMA officials determine the need for assistance from authorized categories after a declaration is issued and provides assistance only to those persons or entities determined to need the assistance.”

What’s Happening in Puerto Rico?

  • Puerto Rico was hit directly by the center of a near-Category 5 hurricane for more than 30 hours on 20 September, according to The Atlantic and The New York Times.
    • Tricia Wachtendorf, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware who studies disaster relief, told The Atlantic that the Hurricane Maria had many elements of a “catastrophic event.”
      • Wachtendorf said, “Most, if not all, of the built environment is destroyed [in a catastrophe].”
    • To date, Puerto Rico’s communication services remain down, electricity is out, most of the island has no drinkable water, and 80% of its crop value has been destroyed, according to The New York Times.
    • CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reported on 13 October:

“President Trump increased cost sharing to 100% Federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance, for 180 days from the date of the declaration.”

  • A Major Disaster Declaration was also declared on 10 September for Puerto Rico, as a result of Hurricane Irma, with FEMA assistance approved for this disaster in the following categories, as of 12 October:
    • $1,065,498.41 for Individual & Households Program
    • $555,150.27 for Housing Assistance
    • $510,348.14 for Other Needs Assistance
  • FEMA also authorized $210 million in assistance to Puerto Rico, including $70 million to the “Aqueduct and Sewer Authority” following Hurricanes Maria and Irma, according to a press release published on 11 October:

“FEMA awarded the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) $70 million for emergency work, bringing the total amount of assistance awarded to individuals and communities to $210 million…

PRASA is the primary water and sewer provider for the government of Puerto Rico. Since most of the island is still without power, generators at these facilities must be utilized around the clock in order to avoid a potential public health crisis…

The island-wide power failure resulted in the stoppage of the network of lift stations, which are a crucial part of the sewerage and wastewater collection system.”

  • An earlier press release from 11 October detailed that $44 million had been previously approved for assistance to individuals and more than $96 million had been previously approved for emergency work in response to hurricanes Irma and Maria, adding:

“FEMA continues to take registrations from residents of Puerto Rico who incurred damages to their homes and personal property as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria.”

  • Trump’s suggestion that federal aid will be limited in Puerto Rico comes after he visited the US territory on 3 October and said during a press conference that “Puerto Rico had thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
  • Trump later tweeted on 13 October:

Puerto Rico’s Financial State —

  • Before being hit by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was struggling to come back from an 11-year economic recession and significant public debt, including $74 billion in bond debt and $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations, as reported by The New York Times.
  • The New York Times reported the following of the average Puerto Ricans’ income, pre-Hurricanes Maria and Irma, in 2014:

“Puerto Rico, about 1,000 miles from Miami, has long been poor. Its per capita income is around $15,200, half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. 37% of all households receive food stamps; in Mississippi, the total is 22%.”

  • The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (commonly referred to as “The Jones Act”), which Trump temporarily waived through 8 October to allow more aid to reach Puerto Rico, has also been a factor in hurting the territory’s economy, according to a 2016 press release from US Rep. Gary Palmer (Alabama).
    • The Jones Act, according to PBS:
      • “[Requires all goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported by U.S. vessels (and operated primarily by Americans).”
      • “[C]alls for providing the nation with a merchant marine that can transport goods between US ports, increase national security during war times, and support a US maritime industry.”
      • “[S]afeguards the rights of sailors from being exploited, requiring compensation for injuries due to negligence by their employers.”
      • “[R]equires employers to maintain safe environments and provide medical care.”
      • “[S]ets standards for vessel maintenance, safety equipment such as lifeboats, and crew qualifications, training and licensing.”
      • “[R]equires all US ships to comply with EPA regulations.”
      • “Under the Jones Act, any vessel can enter Puerto Rico. In fact, many foreign vessels enter Puerto Rico regularly, importing goods from countries around the world. However, transportation of goods between two U.S. ports must be carried out by a vessel that was built in the US and operated primarily by Americans. This law doesn’t single out Puerto Rico — it applies to all US ports, the only exception being the US Virgin Islands.”
  • Palmer said he offered an amendment in 2016 to HR 5278, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which would have permanently exempted Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, according to a press release published on 7 June 2016. Palmer said:

“The Jones Act exemption helps Puerto Rico, a US territory with limited access to cheaper transportation such as trains or trucks, by reducing prices for goods transported by water. Two Puerto Rican economists found that from 1991-2010, the Jones Act cost Puerto Rican residents $16.4 billion. For example a vehicle costs $6,000 more in Puerto Rico than on the mainland, and food is twice as expensive as in Florida…

Relief from the Jones Act would allow the cost of living in Puerto Rico to decline, allowing residents to stretch their wages further than before. If Congress wants to help Puerto Rico we must provide them with opportunities to better their economy and lower their cost of living, not bail them out without any forward thinking solutions.”

  • Palmer’s press release also said:

“Exempting territories from the Jones Act has been proven as a stable, successful way to improve a territory’s economic environment. Three US territories have currently been exempted from the Jones Act strengthening their economies and encouraging business development. The US Virgin Islands were exempted in 1992 and today shipping costs from the mainland are nearly half that of Puerto Rico. If exempted, Puerto Rico’s power companies would be able to replace foreign-sourced oil with cheaper, cleaner, US-sourced natural gas. Manufacturers in Puerto Rico would also no longer be at a cost disadvantage relative to Asia and other Latin American countries when shipping goods to the US.”

How Puerto Rico Became a US Territory —

  • According to the History website:
    • Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for 400 years, until the island was granted autonomy by Spain in 1897.
    • Puerto Rico formed its own elected government in February 1898, and was invaded by the US in July of that same year.
    • By the end of 1898, Puerto Rico became a US territory in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.
    • Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917, leading up to World War I.
    • In 1952, Congress approved a new Puerto Rican constitution and the island became an autonomous US commonwealth, with its citizens retaining American citizenship.
  • Today, Puerto Rico has one non-voting delegate in the US House of Representatives, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, and no US senator.

Support for Trump’s Comments on Puerto Rico —

“The minute you go anywhere as a first responder — and this would apply, certainly, to the military — you are trying very hard, working very hard to work yourself out of a job…

There will be a period in which — we hope sooner rather than later — to where the US military and FEMA, generally speaking, can withdraw because then the government and the people of Puerto Rico are recovering sufficiently to start the process of rebuilding…

[T]his country, our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done. But the tweet about FEMA and DOD — read: military — is exactly accurate. They’re not going to be there forever, and the whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job and then transition to the rebuilding process.”

Critics of Trump’s Comments on Puerto Rico —

  • San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, said that Trump’s “disparaging comments” about Puerto were not helpful, in a clip shared by CNN on 13 October. She added:

“The most powerful country in the world can’t get enough water into Puerto Rico, an island that’s 100 by 35 miles wide? Come on.”

  • Cruz also said on 12 October:

  • Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosello, said on 12 October:

Stephanie Haney contributed to this report. 

The Whim News Team

The Whim News Desk

We'd rather be second and accurate than be first and wrong. The Whim News Desk is a dedicated team of researchers and investigators committed to presenting the news without bias. Follow us @TheWhimOnline for daily news coverage without the spin!

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