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White House to Withhold Disaster Relief Until Puerto Rico Implements Requested Reforms-

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White House to Withhold Disaster Relief Until Puerto Rico Implements Requested Reforms-

2020-01-16 23:00:131 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Post earthquakes in Puerto Rico (Image source: Screenshot)

Donald Trump seems to be the type of guy to kick a man when he's down, as that's what he's doing to Puerto Rico. After all the island has been through the past 2-1/2 years, it is in desperate need of disaster relief, yet the White House isn't going to come through for Puerto Rico until it implements requested reforms. 

Puerto Rico was first hit in 2017 by Hurricane Maria. It wiped out life as citizens knew it across the island. They went a long time without any power to much of the island, and it led to great hardships across the board. They followed this with political corruption last year and saw government officials arrested and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló pushed out. January's earthquakes have left entire communities fearful of living in their homes, especially with infrastructure problems that were never fixed after the hurricane.

Before the earthquakes even hit, the White House was working to put new restrictions on approximately $8 billion in disaster mitigation aid that had been approved by Congress for Puerto Rico. In these new restrictions, the Puerto Rican government will be required to give oversight authority to the federally-mandated Fiscal Control Board before it can get funding for some federal projects. The island will also be required to pay federal contractors who work on disaster relief less than $15 an hour, despite an executive order that mandates that rate. 

But that's not all. The government will also be required to create a new system for registering properties and deeds to help curb federal reimbursement fraud. None of the disaster mitigation funding can go toward the island's electrical grid.

White House officials have been working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The department is expected to tell the government of Puerto Rico about the restrictions this week, according to officials. 

It's estimated that the earthquakes caused $110 million in damages to at least five municipalities, but mayors believe that number will get larger, as the temblors are continuing, as well as damage assessments. Some communities are still waiting for relief after Maria, such as in Ponce. The city's government is waiting on funding for hundreds of sites, and only three have been approved so far.

"The help comes, but it comes one drop at a time," said Ponce deputy mayor Elizabeth Ocasio. "We needed to strengthen these structures after the hurricane. Now, we have greater damage." 

Puerto Rico officials, along with congressional Democrats have criticized the Trump administration for not releasing aid the could have helped the island in its long recovery. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the chair of a committee overseeing U.S. territories, said efforts are starting to move, only to still face a set of challenges.

"This has been a painful delaying tactic," he said. 

Trump and GOP lawmakers witnessed the corruption scandal with the government and felt it vindicated their demands for more oversight of federal spending on the island. Money is not being allowed to go toward the electrical grid, as the administration believes money for repairing it has already been wasted.

"President Trump is committed to helping the people of Puerto Rico while also ensuring the taxpayer dollars are not wasted. In a great win for Puerto Ricans and U.S. taxpayers, the administration has outlined reforms for the grant agreement to Puerto Rico in order to protect resources," said Office of Management and Budget spokesman Chase Jennings. 

Chairman of the fiscal board José B. Carrión III said in an interview that more authority "is not something we sought" but that the board wants to help the federal government get more funding through.

"We are not looking at this as a power play," he said. "We want to do our part so the federal government feels comfortable, and the funds flow to the people of Puerto Rico who need them. We want to get away from Puerto Rico being a problem situation." 

While Congress has approved $2 billion to help Puerto Rico, only a small portion has been allocated. $8.3 billion in disaster mitigation funding was approved by Congress to protect the areas of the island that are prone to natural disasters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) earlier this month accused the Trump administration of illegally holding the money and requested that it "cease and desist." 

Not all Puerto Ricans are against the new restrictions. Some who have been critical of Trump's handling of the island's situation said the new restrictions might be needed because of the corruption that has been discovered among some officials.

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