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FEMA Approves $13 Billion In Aid For Puerto Rico


The Trump administration announced today that it has released $13 billion for Puerto Rico to rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. The announcement comes days before the third anniversary of the hurricane. It's money the island's residents have been waiting for a long time. But the announcement has been panned by Democrats, who say it's a cynical political stunt just weeks before the November election. Joining me to talk about this are NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who joins us from Miami today, and NPR's national correspondent Adrian Florido in Los Angeles. Welcome to both of you.



PFEIFFER: Adrian, let's start with the announcement. What exactly will these $13 billion be used for?

FLORIDO: So the money has two very specific purposes. The majority of it, about 10 billion, is to rebuild and strengthen the power grid, which the hurricane completely destroyed. This is money to repair and strengthen the island's massive power plants, thousands of miles of electric cables, tens of thousands of power poles, work that officials say is going to make the grid much stronger than it was before the storm because remember that even before Hurricane Maria, it was a very fragile power grid because of decades of neglect. And then another 3 billion or so is going to go to repair and rebuild damaged schools. This is the island's nonvoting representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, at a press conference in San Juan today.


JENNIFFER GONZALEZ COLON: I want to thank the Trump administration for signing this historical agreement allowing the people of Puerto Rico to actually with resiliency work together back to the future.

FLORIDO: One point that both she and the White House made today is that this is the largest disaster relief grant the federal government has ever made.

PFEIFFER: Adrian, it was almost three years to the day that Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, September 20, 2017. Parts of the island went close to a year without power. Why has this taken so long to arrive, this money?

FLORIDO: Well, what FEMA says is that this has been a long process because they are trying to make sure that this money is spent responsibly. There have been extensive negotiations between the island's government and the federal government over how much repairs will cost and what exactly this money can be spent on. And the federal government just says that that process takes a lot of time. But there are also many people on the island and off who say that, look. The Trump administration has exhibited its disdain for Puerto Rico since the day that he arrived on the island after the storm and started flinging paper towels. This morning, I spoke with New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who said that Trump has spent three years finding every excuse to delay funding that the island needs. And she said now it's election time. And two of the most important swing states that Trump wants to win, Florida and Pennsylvania, have huge Puerto Rican populations. Listen to what she said.

NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: And he knows Puerto Ricans living in those places have seared into their memory images of him throwing paper towels. So it seemed so obvious why this is happening 46 days before Election Day.

FLORIDO: And to be clear, Sacha, she said that she is glad that this money is being released. It's been a long time coming. But she's wary about the timing and the political motivations, obviously.

PFEIFFER: Franco, the president talked about this funding at the White House today. And he has had a strained relationship with Puerto Rico over time. How much is this trying to fix that relationship?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, you know, just as kind of, like, Adrian's talking about, in 2017, the president was discussing about how people in Puerto Rico were not grateful for the help the federal government was giving. He complained about corruption on the island. And now today he says the problems of the island predate his administration. He blames his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, for some of these problems. And Trump's taking credit for helping address the power problems there.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I have to say in a very nice way, a very respectful way, I'm the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico - nobody even close.

ORDOÑEZ: His campaign, there's no question, is making a big play for Florida voters, specifically for Latino voters. And so has the Biden campaign. And there are a lot of people, potential voters, who left the island after Hurricane Maria and moved to Florida.

PFEIFFER: So given that, Franco, how is it expected that this will play into the campaign?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, it makes it harder for Democrats to make the argument that Trump didn't do enough. Now, Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic, but other Latino voters in the state, particularly those in the Miami area, where I am right now, they are traditionally more conservative, and they are finding Trump's message appealing. Many of those families fled Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. And Trump is saying that electing Biden will bring socialism and communism to the United States. And that scares people. Polls show that the race is really tightening. And Florida is going to be very critical to determine who wins the November presidential election.

PFEIFFER: Adrian, this money is obviously welcome news for Puerto Rico. But you mentioned that there were questions about whether it be used responsibly. Are there concerns still about whether this will be money well spent?

FLORIDO: There are concerns in Puerto Rico about corruption specifically, especially in light of a string of recent corruption arrests and charges on the island. But there are other types of concerns, too. There are advocates on the island who fear that the government is wasting an opportunity to build a grid that can actually withstand these hurricanes that seem to be getting stronger and more frequent. Puerto Rico currently relies on on a few massive aging power plants. And today, I spoke with Ruth Santiago. She's an attorney who is pushing the government to decentralize its power grid and make it shift to renewable energy. Listen to her.

RUTH SANTIAGO: With this funding the way the announcement indicates - that it will go for all kinds of investments that perpetuate this system of long-distance transmission. But then the hurricanes, we know, will take them down again.

PFEIFFER: Adrian...

FLORIDO: They're going to continue pushing. Yeah.

PFEIFFER: Thank you for that. That's Adrian Florido in Los Angeles and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez in Miami.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Sacha.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.