Senate Democrats ask for public works aid for Puerto Rico

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WASHINGTON -- Seven Senate Democrats are asking the Trump administration to waive requirement for a local cost share to repair damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and quickly approve Permanent Work Public Assistance.

In a letter Monday to FEMA Administrator Brock Long, the senators led by Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York urged an immediate green light for federal funds to make permanent repairs beyond the cleanup and restoration of public services that are the current focus of federal aid.

Schumer pointed to President Trump Oct. 12 statement on Twitter as a reason to quickly approve funding for permanent repairs. Trump tweeted, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency funds would be used for permanent replacement of damaged infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water facilities, public buildings and parks with a waiver for the 25% local share.

The money could be drawn from an $18.7 billion allocation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund that’s contained in a larger $36.5 billion package of disaster aid approved by the House Thursday.

The Senate is expected to take up the $36.5 billion aid package later this week.

The package already earmarks $4.9 billion of the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund allocation for a loan to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to keep the two territorial governments afloat past the end of this month.

The legislation also includes $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program to pay insurance claims, $1.27 billion for emergency nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico and $576.5 million for wildfires in California and elsewhere in the West.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello Nevares outlined his territory’s needs for $4.6 billion in federal emergency assistance in an Oct. 6 letter.

Rossello’s request was topped by $3.2 billion in Community Development Block Grants, $500 million for the Community Disaster Loan Program and $500 million for a Social Services Block Grant.

The island also requested $149 million from the federal Transportation Department’s Emergency Relief Program, $90 million through the Small Business Administration Disaster Loan Program, $83 million through the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Assistance Program and $78 million through the Department of Education’s program for state educational agencies/hurricane education recovery.

Rossello’s letter said “independent damage assessments in the range of $95 billion – approximately 150% of Puerto Rico’s’’ economy.

“Financial damages of this magnitude will subject Puerto Rico's central government, its instrumentalities, and municipal governments to unsustainable cash shortfalls,’’ Rossello wrote. “As a result, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis, Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future.”

The other Democratic joining Schumer in the letter were Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker.

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