Biden to Free Up Billions in Delayed Puerto Rico Storm Aid

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said it would release $1.3 billion in aid that Puerto Rico can use to protect against future climate disasters, and is starting to remove some restrictions put in place by the Trump administration on spending that was to help the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Administration officials, describing the move as a first step toward addressing racial inequality through policies designed to address climate change, said they planned to ease the limits that the Trump administration placed on another $4.9 billion in aid on the morning of Jan. 20, a few hours before the former president left office.

Puerto Rico’s reconstruction after Maria, which devastated the island more than three years ago, has been far slower than the recovery in other parts of the country, such as Texas and Florida, that were also struck by major disasters that year. That is partly because the Department of Housing and Urban Development had placed restrictions on Puerto Rico’s aid funds that didn’t apply to other recipients, according to current and former officials and policy experts.

“That slow pace of disbursement has dampened Puerto Rico’s recovery,” said Rosanna Torres, Washington director for the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rican think tank.

The money is part of $20 billion that Congress provided HUD after Maria for recovery and for protection against future storms in Puerto Rico. According to federal data, only $138 million, or about 0.7 percent, has been spent, a far lower rate than for funding that Congress provided HUD to help Texas, Florida and other parts of the United States to rebuild after similar disasters.

That discrepancy reflects the insistence by senior Trump officials that Puerto Rico provide HUD with more information and documentation than state governments about its spending plans before money would be released, according to Stan Gimont, who was HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at the time.

“It seemed like it was excessive,” said Mr. Gimont, who left HUD in 2019 and is now a senior adviser for community recovery at Hagerty Consulting. “It made it a really onerous process.”

The Trump administration’s reluctance to provide funds to Puerto Rico reflected a number of motivations, according to Mr. Gimont and two other former senior administration officials, who asked not be identified discussing the matter because they worried doing so would upset their current or future employers.

One was the concern that the island would struggle to properly spend such a huge amount of money, creating the possibility that some of it would be misspent. That concern was overblown, Puerto Rican officials say.

Kenneth McClintock, a former Puerto Rico secretary of state and Senate president, said that the island had an admittedly slow and bureaucratic process to approve construction projects. But the Trump administration also tagged Puerto Rico as more corrupt than other jurisdictions and delayed the disbursement of federal funds to begin with, he said.

“Trump believed that Puerto Rico was the most corrupt place in the nation,” he said. “We do have corruption,” Mr. McClintock said, but he said that he considered it no worse than other parts of the country.

Through a spokesman, Ben Carson, the HUD secretary under President Donald J. Trump, declined to comment. A spokesman for Mr. Trump didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Concerns about corruption or mismanagement led to a worse problem, former Trump officials said: Three and a half years after Maria, much of the damage has yet to be repaired.

“The money was appropriated to promote recovery,” Mr. Gimont said. “If you don’t spend the money, you’re sure not promoting the recovery.”

Mr. Biden had raised the slow release of Puerto Rico disaster money as an issue during his presidential campaign and had pledged to reverse it.

The office of Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi, who was sworn in on Jan. 2, referred questions to the Puerto Rico Department of Housing, which said the secretary wasn’t immediately available for an interview.

Trump officials complicated the Biden team’s ability to make good on that pledge. On the morning of Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, Brian Montgomery, who was about to leave his post as HUD’s deputy secretary, approved a request from Puerto Rico to gain access to $4.9 billion to help harden the island against future storms.

But in approving that request, Mr. Montgomery added requirements that made it harder for Puerto Rico to spend the money, which would have forced the island to go through a separate approval process for each individual project funded by those dollars. On Monday, HUD reversed the decision, telling Puerto Rico to apply again for the $4.9 billion so that HUD can approve its application without the restrictions.

In an interview, Mr. Montgomery said the conditions that HUD imposed on Puerto Rico were justified by the fact that the island rarely suffers from large-scale disasters and so lacked the experience handling large amounts of federal disaster aid that some states have.

Mr. Montgomery also said that the conditions imposed in the Jan. 20 letter to Puerto Rico weren’t intended to tie the hands of the Biden administration. He said the goal was to make more funding available to Puerto Rico, under conditions that he thought were appropriate to safeguard public money.

“The secretary and I felt very strongly to get this money out on our watch, because we had been working very closely with Puerto Rico on it,” Mr. Montgomery said.

A spokesman for HUD, Michael Burns, called the agency’s moves on Monday an attempt to “reset” its relationship with Puerto Rico. “The action we are taking today will help the island build resilience to future storms and floods,” he said.

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