(Note: The writer is answering the question: “Did the U.S. shortchange Puerto Rico on disaster aid?”)
WASHINGTON — August and September of 2017 were tough months for several coastal states and U.S. territories. Hurricane Harvey clobbered Texas and Louisiana. A few weeks later, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
In response, Congress provided significant disaster relief — though not as quickly as one might hope. Some think Puerto Rico has been shortchanged. The numbers tell a more nuanced story.
To begin with, Washington has allocated $42.3 billion in federal disaster relief for Puerto Rico, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “spending explorer” tracking website.
That’s 42% of disaster relief appropriated for states and territories — and that does not include some $17 billion in the new disaster relief package moving through Congress.
By contrast, Texas was allocated $25.8 billion, Florida $8.1 billion, and Louisiana $2.9 billion, according to FEMA.
One can claim $42.3 billion is not enough — and Puerto Rican officials are doing exactly that — but it certainly is a lot, and much more than other hard-hit states.
Not all of the allocated funds have been distributed. Government relief agencies go through a process — this is the government, after all — both to ensure fairness and to limit fraud, though emergencies can initiate an expedited process.
Importantly, FEMA was already consumed with Harvey’s aftermath when Maria hit, which may have slowed the response. People and resources were strained. Government can be slow to act in the best of times — and this was far from the best of times.
Secondly, Puerto Rico’s location, topography and inadequate infrastructure created their own set of challenges.
As National Public Radio reported about a week after the disaster, “at the port of San Juan, row after row of refrigerated shipping containers sit humming. They’ve been there for days, goods locked away.” One shipping company had more than 3,400 commercial crates at its terminal. At other ports “stranded crates total an estimated 10,000.”
People on the ground in Puerto Rico blamed paperwork, unions, bad roads, downed power lines and a lack of truck drivers.
Months later FEMA responded to criticism by asserting, “An ideal response to any disaster is one that is federally supported, state managed and locally executed.”
FEMA’s efforts build on and are subject to “the capacity of the state, territorial, tribal and local governments.” It was a polite way of saying that the agency didn’t get the “state management and local execution” it needed.
Finally, while no one can doubt Maria’s devastation, Puerto Rican officials may be exploiting it to obscure their own failures and siphon more money from Washington.
In short, Puerto Rican officials have adopted former White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s now-famous motto: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Puerto Rico has long embraced the high-tax, bloated-government and generous-welfare state being proposed by so many Democratic presidential candidates. That approach has impoverished the island and run off businesses and high-earners.
The island’s unemployment rate is 8.7 percent, compared to 3.6% nationwide. Nearly half of the population is on Medicaid. And the government is the island’s largest employer, about 20% of the workforce — down from 26% a decade ago.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office criticized “the Puerto Rico government’s inadequate financial management and oversight practices,” noting that “Puerto Rico has roughly $70 billion in outstanding public debt and $50 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and, since August 2015, has defaulted on over $1.5 billion in debt payments.”
These are the same Puerto Rican officials who managed the Maria crisis.
Puerto Rican politicians and their defenders see the catastrophe as a way to get even more money from Washington. Or, as Rahm Emanuel put it, “It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation. Readers may write him at IPI, 1320 Greenway Drive, Suite 820, Irving, TX 75038.