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Why federal aid for struggling Puerto Rico remains a political battle

A wide-ranging disaster relief bill failed in the Senate Monday due to a disagreement about federal aid for Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the island territory is struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria's damaging blow a year and a half ago. Lisa Desjardins reports on the stalled legislation, and John Yang talks to Associated Press reporter Danica Coto about what’s at stake for Puerto Rico's people.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last night, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a wide-ranging disaster relief bill. Now, nearly a year-and-a-half since Hurricane Maria, it is stalled over disagreements about Puerto Rico recovery aid.

    John Yang will have an update from the island.

    But, first, Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Nature's forces have battered the United States in the past half-year, storm winds, floodwaters and deadly wildfire. To those natural disasters, now add a manmade one.

  • Man:

    The motion is not agreed to.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Seven months after some of those crises, Congress still cannot agree on much-needed recovery funds, with a failed Senate vote last night and blame today.

  • Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii:

    I think he is politicizing the issue of disaster relief.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    I'm disappointed that political games carried the day yesterday.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Waiting for relief, areas in Georgia and North Carolina hit by Hurricane Florence in the fall. That includes the Marine Corps training base Camp Lejeune. Billions in damage there is not yet repaired.

    Also waiting, large areas of California, where wildfires swept through last year, including the most costly in state history, which killed more than 80 people. This March, almost unprecedented flooding hit the Midwest, devastating both farmland and crops in storage. And all of that is being held up, mostly by disagreement over another disaster area, Puerto Rico.

    The territory is still recovering from 2017's Hurricane Maria, but Republicans say the island must start handling more recovery costs on its own, at least 10 percent.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    So, in the case of Puerto Rico, what's the big deal? Anybody in Puerto Rico is going to qualify for aid under FEMA. Those laws have been the same for such a long period of time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Democrats want the federal government to fully fund recovery, pointing out the island is grappling with financial and economic crises. They also want money to rebuild infrastructure.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    We want to help these people, and Republicans and President Trump have to understand that, in Puerto Rico, we are dealing with Americans who are still reeling.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president rejects that argument.

  • Donald Trump:

    They don't know how to spend the money, and they're not spending it wisely.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized aid intended for Puerto Rico, and has disputed the need for additional federal dollars. He has made some bold statements.

  • Donald Trump:

    Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being. I'm giving them more money than they have ever got.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's look at the president's words, including on Twitter today, that Puerto Rico got $91 billion for the hurricane, more money than ever for a hurricane.

    The actual aid received by Puerto Rico so far is reportedly a fraction of that. The Washington Post called agency by agency and found that about $11 billion has been sent. Another $30 billion has been approved, but not yet released or spent. Now, it is possible that long-term costs, not yet approved, could head toward the president's number of $91 billion.

    But the president is wrong that this is the most ever spent on a hurricane. Federal relief from 2005's Hurricane Katrina was $120 billion.

    In that same tweet, the president also said the island's politicians would only take from the USA. Puerto Ricans, of course, point out their island is part of the USA, and has been for 120 years, about as long as Hawaii.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

  • John Yang:

    While that political fight goes on in Congress, in Puerto Rico, residents are still fighting to return to normal a year-and-a-half after Hurricane Maria.

    Associated Press reporter Danica Coto joins us from San Juan via Skype to talk about where things stand.

    Danica, thanks so much for joining us.

    One of the things caught up in this fight in Congress is more food stamp money for Puerto Rico. What effect is that having on the ground on residents there?

  • Danica Coto:

    A lot, if you ask people here.

    There's about 1.3 million people who are on the food stamp program. And when Congress authorized the $1.27 billion one-time funding after Hurricane Maria, that allowed the government to include about 279,000 additional people that were not covered by the program. So, right now, starting as of March 1, a lot of people have seen their benefits cut.

    I have spoken to people who have seen them reduced from $400 down to $200, forcing many of them to cut back on much-needed medication, on food and on other items.

  • John Yang:

    What's the biggest challenge still remaining to clean up after Hurricane Maria?

  • Danica Coto:

    I think there's a lot of challenges.

    Individually, you know, people are still awaiting, hopefully, you know, more funding in terms of the food stamp program. A lot have been struggling to make ends meet. Not only that. Infrastructure is also a concern. There are still about tens of thousands of people who have blue tarps as roofs.

    And, as hurricane season draws closer, this remains a big concern, because homes are still flooding even with minor storms.

  • John Yang:

    A big story after the storm was electricity. What's the status of that now?

  • Danica Coto:

    Well, Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority has received the most money out of any government agency after the hurricane. It's received about roughly $1.3 billion.

    But that represents only 71 percent of what's been obligated. So they used that money to help repair some of the work done after the hurricane. I recently spoke with officials at the power company, and they noted the strengthening of the system has not even started yet.

    So they're going back to sort of repair what they cull a patch-up job that was done, you know, to bring back power pretty quickly to people who needed it, and now they have to go back and restrengthen the system and do it properly and use, you know, equipment that's of higher quality.

  • John Yang:

    Are there some people who are without power 24 hours?

  • Danica Coto:

    There are several outages that occur every week across the island. The system is still very, very much fragile.

    And a lot of people worry, given that the Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1. So, every week, people across the island are grappling with outages that could last anywhere from one hour to 24 hours.

  • John Yang:

    Another big story after the storm was the school system.

    And, today, the education secretary announced she was leaving. What's the situation there?

  • Danica Coto:


    The resignation took many by surprise. Julia Keleher, the education secretary, was nominated back in 2016, and the government saw her as the person, you know, needed to overhaul an Education Department that has been plagued by bureaucracy, dwindling resources.

    And so she was credited with bringing back change to that department, creating new offices, as well as she oversaw the closure of more than 400 schools. Many people have criticized her for that. But the department notes that about 42 — there's been a 42 percent enrollment drop in Puerto Rico in the past three decades, and an additional 22 percent drop is expected in the upcoming years.

    So, many of the schools that they closed were either halfway empty. As well, you know, Hurricane Maria damaged several schools, and those remain to be repaired.

  • John Yang:

    Danica, what's the reaction in Puerto Rico to some of the president's tweets and statements about Puerto Rico?

  • Danica Coto:

    Overall, I would say that people are not surprised, given his previous tweets, but there's still a lot of underlying resentment.

    His tweets come at a time where people are now experiencing a drop in benefits as a result of the food stamp funding running out.

    And, in addition, they're bristling, you know, at the many comments that have been made that suggest that Puerto Rico is not part of the U.S. It is a U.S. territory, and all its citizens are U.S. citizens.

    So, overall, people are not surprised, but they are very upset, that they feel they're sort of waving their hand, and they're in a U.S. territory, and they're not getting the attention they feel that they need, especially nearly two years after the Category 4 storm struck.

  • John Yang:

    Danica Coto of the Associated Press, from San Juan, thank you very much.

  • Danica Coto:

    Thank you for having me.

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