As US House weighs $36.5 billion disaster relief, Trump slams Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday pushed back against federal aid for Puerto Rico as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to weigh $36.5 billion in emergency relief for the U.S. territory and other hurricane-hit areas as well as fire-ravaged California.

Lawmakers are expected to approve the bipartisan measure that will also provide relief to the storm-struck areas of Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and leaders of both major parties have lauded the bill.

Trump, in several Twitter posts early on Thursday, however, criticized Puerto Rico for ”a total lack of “accountability,” saying “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.”

While he noted it was up to “Congress to decide how much to spend,” he said: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

The bill includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund. Of that amount, $4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure that the cash-strapped Puerto Rico can keep government programs operating beyond Oct. 31.

Other funds include $576.5 million for the federal government’s wildfire control efforts. Some $16 billion would go toward the National Flood Insurance Program to help it cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.

Once passed by the Republican-led House, the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is expected to take up the package later this month after it returns from a week-long recess.

VITAL FUNDS

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, however, said even more money would likely be needed later.

“These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, said.

“More assistance will be required in the near future,” he added, saying his panel was monitoring the crises as they unfold.

Democratic Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, said the relief package was “just the start” of federal aid to the island, where large areas remain without electricity or running water three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

“Much more needs to be done, but, for now the bill includes critical measures that the island needs in the short term to respond to this once-in-a-generation humanitarian crisis,” Velázquez said.

Puerto Rico is burdened with nearly $72 billion in pre-hurricane debt that is being overseen by a federally created oversight board.

Velázquez said the funds earmarked for loans to local governments would assist Puerto Rico’s “liquidity crisis” and that steps must be taken to ensure that creditors are unable to access funds meant for disaster relief.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bernadette Baum

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