President Trump is Misleading People About Aid to Puerto Rico

President Donald Trump claims that “Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane” and that it received “more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before.” Neither of those statements is true.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as of the end of last year, Puerto Rico had actually received about $11.2 billion in disaster relief payments since 2017.

In all, the federal government has allocated nearly $41 billion, and has obligated about half of it via binding agreements, but as we said, so far just a portion of that — $11.2 billion — has been distributed in Puerto Rico.

To get to the $91 billion figure, a senior administration official told us Trump is including the total allocation for Puerto Rico — $41 billion — plus an estimated $50 billion in future FEMA costs “over the life of the disaster,” which can stretch decades.

“It is accurate to say that $41 billion has been allocated and there will likely be billions more,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told us via email. “But to just add up actual appropriations (most of which has not actually [been] obligated, much less cash on the ground) to some future cost estimates seems inaccurate to me.”

The president is also wrong to say Puerto Rico got “more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before.” The federal government spent more on Hurricane Katrina aid.

Trump’s claim — which he made via a tweet — came as Republicans and Democrats butt heads on disaster aid proposals, with Democrats seeking more aid for Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Trump has used this $91 billion figure before. He cited it in a meeting with Republican senators on March 26, and again on March 28, telling reporters, “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever. We have $91 billion going to Puerto Rico. We have $29 billion to Texas and $12 billion to Florida for the hurricanes.”

We asked the White House how Trump arrived at the $91 billion figure, and a senior administration official broke it down to us like this: $14 billion in FEMA allocations to date, plus $26 billion in non-FEMA allocations — for a total of $41 billion allocated for Puerto Rico disaster relief.

For more details, the official pointed us to FEMA’s Spending Explorer website, which allows users to track disaster aid by state appropriated in 2017 and 2018. It tracks spending in three categories: allocated (which means Congress has appropriated the funds), obligated (which means the government has entered a binding agreement to award funding), and outlayed (which means the money has actually been paid).

As we said, the FEMA calculator shows only $11.2 billion of the $41 billion allocated for Puerto Rico disaster relief has been paid so far. (We should note that not all disaster relief going to Puerto Rico is directly tied to Hurricane Maria. The appropriations also include relief from Hurricane Irma, which was much less severe for Puerto Rico, but which also caused some damage.)

But to get to $91 billion, the senior administration official told us, the president is also adding $50 billion, the “estimated future FEMA costs over the life of the disaster.” The official referred us to a report from the Washington Post Fact Checker that said the $50 billion was “an internal Office of Management and Budget estimate of the potential liabilities over the life of the disaster that would need to be committed under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988,” which governs federal disaster response in the U.S. The Post added that the estimate “was described as a high-end estimate subject to change year by year.”

“Stafford Act claims can be paid out for decades, and future claims are very difficult to quantify,” a House Appropriations Committee spokesperson told us.

Post-disaster federal funding comes from two main sources, the Disaster Relief Fund and supplemental appropriations, according to Ellis. By the end of 2019, FEMA estimates that a little less than $21 billion will have gone to Puerto Rico from the Disaster Relief Fund as a result of Maria (with another $3.6 billion going to the Virgin Islands).

By comparison, FEMA to date has spent more than $50 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, including $32.6 billion to Louisiana. Ellis notes that nearly $200 million in Katrina-related disaster aid will come from the relief fund this year, “which gives you an idea of how long these funds trickle in.”

The appropriated funds are harder to track, Ellis said. In addition to Katrina, there were two other major storms in the U.S. in 2005, Rita and Wilma. And in addition to Maria, Hurricane Irma made landfall the same year in 2017. The funds for multiple storms can go into the same accounts, making it hard to track aid for particular storms.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that, in all, “Congress provided roughly $120 billion for Hurricane Katrina.” So even if the president’s long-term cost estimate for Puerto Rico pans out, it would still be less than what was spent by the federal government on Katrina.

Comparing money allocated after storms also needs to account for the severity of the storms, and how much damage they cause.

Although the federal spending for disaster relief in Florida and Texas has been lower, as the president noted, those storms also caused less damage than Maria did in Puerto Rico.

According to a study published in the journal BMJ Global Health on Jan. 18, “the federal government responded on a larger scale and much more quickly across measures of federal money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The variation in the responses was not commensurate with storm severity and need after landfall in the case of Puerto Rico compared with Texas and Florida.”

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