'Shameful': Calls for Trump to release billions of dollars for Puerto Rico aid after deadly earthquakes

Alex Woodward
AFP via Getty

Democrats are demanding Donald Trump's administration "immediately" release billions of dollars in congressionally approved aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of devastating and ongoing earthquakes and aftershocks that have destroyed hundreds of homes and left two-thirds of the island without electricity.

Earthquakes began rocking the island in late December, kicking off thousands of tremors, including the biggest quake to hit the island in a century, and killing at least one person and causing more than $110m in damages.

The quakes have rocked the island so intensely that Nasa researchers say the damage is visible from space.

Puerto Rico is still waiting on billions in federal funding after 2017's catastrophic hurricanes, during which more than 3,000 people were killed in the storm and its aftermath and which left more than 1.5m people without power.

In a letter to the president sent on Monday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez demanded answers from Mr Trump, who they urged to direct his Federal Emergency Management Agency to "fully extend federal resources under the most expansive reading of the disaster declaration" that the president issued on 7 January.

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the administration's "ongoing withholding of funds appropriated by Congress to Puerto Rico is illegal".

Ms Pelosi's remarks followed reports that a power plant was damaged by the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck the island on 7 January, among a string of tremors that continue to shake the island.

Ms Velazquez, the first Puerto Rican woman to serve in Congress, joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and several other Democrats in a letter to US Housing Secretary Ben Carson pleading for the "immediate and urgent" publication of materials for the release of $8.3b in grants earmarked for the island's recovery following Hurricane Maria's devastation.

In their letter to the president, Democrats said "it is unconscionable" that the "people of Puerto Rico have been dealing with hundreds of earthquakes and aftershocks — just two years after being ravaged by Hurricane Maria while tens of thousands of people are still living under tarp roofs".

The letter said residents are being forced to "resort to sleeping in roofless shelters due to the fear of being buried in their own homes" after another quake.

Roughly 70 percent of the island was built before earthquake-resistant building codes had been established.

"Let us be clear", the letter reads. "Postponing the disbursement of this vital assistance any longer — in the face of the humanitarian needs of Puerto Rico — is simply shameful."

The Trump administration has released only $1.5 billion of a nearly $10 billion aid package and has refused to release the remainder despite the island's years-long humanitarian crisis.

Last year, he called the island "one of the most corrupt places on earth" and said the congressionally approved aid was sent to "crooked pols".

Meanwhile, the administration is planning to divert more than $7 billion in defence funding for construction of a border wall on the US-Mexico border, raising his budget for the project by five times the amount that Congress had authorised in its 2020 budget package.

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