White House announces $13B for Puerto Rico for recovery from 2017's Hurricane Maria

The U.S. emergency agency is sending almost $13 billion US to Puerto Rico, directed at the territory's energy and education systems, to help it recover from 2017's devastating Hurricane Maria, the White House said on Friday.

Democrats question timing of aid, which will mostly go to island's power grid

U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, are shown on Oct. 3, 2017 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, a visit that took place two weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. (Hector Retamal/Getty Images)

The U.S. emergency agency is sending almost $13 billion US to Puerto Rico, directed at the territory's energy and education systems, to help it recover from 2017's devastating Hurricane Maria, the White House said on Friday.

The "federal share" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's grants to the territory totals $11.6 billion, with most money — $9.6 billion — going to the battered power authority, according to a White House announcement, which did not provide details on the remaining funds or explain why they were not part of the federal share.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced said in a statement that the full FEMA package is $12.8 billion, with $10.5 billion for power.

The White House said $9.6 billion would go to help the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to repair and replace thousands of kilometres of transmission and distribution lines, electrical substations, power generation systems and office buildings, as well as to make other grid improvements.

It also released $2 billion for the Puerto Rico Department of Education to repair schools across the island.

"I have to say, in a very nice way, a very respectful way — I'm the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico," U.S. President Donald Trump said at a White House briefing on Friday afternoon.

Puerto Rico was already struggling financially before the deadly hurricane struck three years ago, and it filed a form of municipal bankruptcy for the commonwealth in 2017 to restructure about $120 billion of debt and obligations.

Since then, the U.S. commonwealth has been hit by more hurricanes, earthquakes, the coronavirus pandemic and political upheaval, and it has been the target of increased federal scrutiny into its use of U.S. aid. A large portion of its financial distress was linked to the territory's power utility.

Trump is working to woo Hispanic voters in the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election, where he faces Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

In a speech on Tuesday in Kissimmee, Fla., where many people settled after fleeing Maria's devastation, Biden said Trump "has done nothing but assault the dignity of Hispanic families."

In addition to Florida, other states with significant Puerto Rican populations whose outcomes are considered up in the air for presidential electoral college votes are Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, though it's no guarantee they would vote solely based on aid for the island.

In a series of tweets, Vázquez Garced, Puerto Rico's governor, thanked the White House for the aid.

Trump dismissed critics of response to Maria

But Nydia Velázquez, a congresswoman from New York born in Puerto Rico, accused the Trump administration of having "delayed, dragged its feet and resisted allocating these badly needed funds."

"Now, 46 days before the election, the administration has finally seen fit to release these funds," she said in a statement.

Florida Democrat Darren Soto, whose father was born in Puerto Rico, was even more pointed.

"This latest political tactic is an insult to the Island and everyone who died as a result of President Trump's failure," the congressman tweeted. "We see right through him."

A worker from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority works to restore power in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, in July 2018. The island's electrical grid has often been battered by Atlantic hurricanes. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/The Associated Press)

Some Democrats criticized the administration for what they characterized as a lacklustre relief effort compared with hurricanes and storms that hit mainland U.S. earlier in Trump's presidency. The mayor of San Juan called the president "abominable" for lobbing paper towels into a crowd when he visited Puerto Rico after the hurricane.

The White House also fended off criticism over a rebuilding contract won by a Montana firm that had ties to Trump's interior secretary at the time.

LISTEN l As It Happens interview with Puerto Rican lawmaker in 2019:

Trump nevertheless said he graded his administration's response to Maria a "10."

While Puerto Rican officials lost track of deaths caused by Maria shortly after the storm's arrival, reaching a total in the 60s, a much-publicized study by researchers at George Washington University several months later that examined excess mortality rates estimated that deaths attributable to the hurricane were closer to 3,000.

Trump took great issue with the estimate from the Washington-based school, asserting without evidence that it was politically biased against him.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press