As the Puerto Rican government prepares to launch its next phase of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, residents of the island are concerned that a $20 billion grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will be used for businesses, not residents who are still reeling from the effects of the 2017 storm.
HUD granted Puerto Rico the money to rebuild after Maria hit, causing a total blackout and the loss of nearly 3,000 people. Reports NPR: “Island officials will have broad discretion to spend the money as they see fit—from repairing damaged homes and building new ones, to shoring up crumbled roads and infrastructure, to launching tourism and business development projects.”
Because the money is not designated for something as specific as, say, home repairs, many residents and community activists believe their needs will be ignored in lieu of corporate and tourism interests.
"This money could be the answer for many communities that within an austerity crisis would not see any money coming in," Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, executive director of nonprofit Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and a human rights attorney, told NPR. "But what we’ve seen so far is that this is a plan for developers, and not for the people."
Under federal mandate, there must be an opportunity for the public to comment on grants from HUD. Reports NPR:
The island’s government has rushed through public comment periods and not made a meaningful public outreach effort, Godreau-Aubert said. The process for proposing projects for funding is highly technical and can require large lines of credit often accessible to developers but not to groups working in local communities. And the government has only posted contract bidding documents in English on an island where just 20 percent of residents report speaking the language well.
"What happens is that when people are not part of the process, they become displaced by the process," Godreau-Aubert said.
As the island’s government decides how to move forward with the grant, the federal government has expressed apprehension about giving additional aid to assist with recovery efforts. According to Politico:
In an October tweet, the president triggered an outcry when he accused Puerto Rico’s “inept” leaders of trying to use “the massive and ridiculously high” amount of disaster aid to pay off the commonwealth’s high debts. Independent observers said there was no factual basis for the president’s claim. Puerto Rico’s advocates were baffled further since Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had been counted as an ally for the island in working through some aid issues.
Nonetheless, when the White House was asked this week if this was still the president’s mindset, there was no backing down. “I refer you back to the president’s tweet. Beyond that, we will not be commenting,” a spokesperson said.
That same day, January 24, researchers at the San Juan-based Center for a New Economy, said that Puerto Rico’s current plans for the HUD grant—which includes relocating families whose homes are in flood-prone areas—do not offer a comprehensive path forward for the island.