By Kanishka Singh
(Reuters) – Puerto Rico will be allowed access to $8.2 billion in delayed disaster-aid funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the island’s non-voting member of the U.S. Congress said.
Jennifer Gonzalez announced the disbursement of another chunk of funds the U.S. territory’s recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017 after hundreds of earthquakes and aftershocks rattled the island since Dec. 28, collapsing hundreds of homes.
However, Puerto Ricans in the United States demonstrated outside HUD offices in several U.S. cities on Wednesday, demanding the U.S. government release all of the $44 billion in disaster and hurricane relief funding allocated to Puerto Rico. To date, only $15 billion of that money has been distributed.
President Donald Trump has described Puerto Rico as “one of the most corrupt places on Earth,” and HUD has argued disaster funds can only be distributed once safeguards are in place to ensure they end up in the right hands.
“Now that a full financial monitoring team is assembled and active, we can move forward with confidence that these disaster recovery funds will reach those who need them the most,” said a senior HUD official.
The quakes have damaged thousands of buildings and homes, and Puerto Rican leaders, as well as U.S. legislators, have called on Trump to declare a major disaster on the island to free up more aid.
Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez on Wednesday said nearly 8,000 of the island’s residents were in government or makeshift shelters, most of them due to fear their homes would collapse if there was another big quake.
“They are people who are very scared. The majority of them are setting up their own campsites,” Vázquez told reporters.
Trump has called Puerto Rico’s political leaders “incompetent or corrupt” and threatened to divert disaster-recovery funds from the U.S. territory to help pay for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The recent quakes have worsened Puerto Rico’s woes as it continues to recover from the 2017 hurricanes, which killed around 3,000 people, and also goes through a bankruptcy process.
Ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service said on Tuesday the earthquakes posed a setback in terms of the island’s economic recovery and ability to retain residents and businesses.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Andrew Hay in Cañon, New Mexico; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)