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Trump Declares Major Disaster After Puerto Rico's Earthquakes

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump has signed off on Puerto Rico's request for a major disaster declaration that will release more than $3 billion in recovery funds. The move offers aid to parts of the island that were hit by a series of earthquakes and aftershocks in the past couple of weeks.

Now, Puerto Rico was already struggling to rebuild 2 1/2 years after Hurricane Maria. The Trump administration had held back hurricane recovery funds for months, saying it was concerned over government corruption in Puerto Rico. Yesterday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced that he's releasing those funds. Jenniffer Gonzalez represents Puerto Rico in Congress. She's on the line.

Good morning, Congresswoman.

JENNIFFER GONZALEZ: Good morning to you and everybody here.

KING: You had been calling on President Trump to designate the earthquake a major disaster. Now that it's done, what will it mean for recovery efforts on the island?

GONZALEZ: That will expedite a lot of the help, individual assistance, directly to the people that were affected. That major declaration of disaster, which covers six towns in the south part of the island, that means that people that lose their houses and are still in shelters are going to receive direct assistance and financial assistance to their homes, including the small businesses in the area.

So having a major declaration of emergency just allow the federal agencies between, like, FEMA, the Human - HHS on the island, to be active working in this issue, the removal of debris, among other help.

KING: So it sounds like this aid for the earthquake, this $3 billion in aid, will do quite a bit. Now, coincidentally, HUD also released $8 1/2 billion in funding for the recovery effort for Hurricane Maria. Now, what's interesting here is that there are restrictions on how it can be spent.

Puerto Rico can't use the money for its electrical grid. It can't pay Puerto Rico's $15 an hour minimum wage on projects funded with federal dollars. There will be a HUD-appointed federal monitor overseeing distribution of that money. The Trump administration says this is to prevent corruption. But I wonder, with all of those caveats, is this acceptable to you?

GONZALEZ: Look, you know, we did have cases of corruption in some areas, not in housing, not regarding with CDBG funds during the last year. So this is new in this area. The caveats are requirements that the federal government just put in place to actually allow Puerto Rico - have the islands to submit their plan to get access to those 8.2 (ph).

So it's not that we're having this disbursement of the funds immediately, it's to open up the process to the islands so we can submit our plan and be approved by HUD. So that means we've got 90 days to apply, 45 days to the agency to approve it and then get the disbursement. In our case, we do understand not having any abuse. We're having taxpayers' money be spent in what we need. So...

KING: You're saying you don't want corruption either, essentially.

GONZALEZ: Exactly. So nobody wants that. What we cannot have is that the requirements may delay, with more bureaucracy, you know, the chances for people to recover from the last disasters two years after.

KING: You're saying the aid needs to get there fast. Jenniffer Gonzalez, thank you so much for your time.

GONZALEZ: My pleasure. Thank you.

KING: Jenniffer Gonzalez represents Puerto Rico in Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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