Puerto Rico is still trembling after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the island last week, pounding the southwestern coast. Since the final days of 2019, more than 40 quakes have shaken the island, severely damaging its infrastructure, knocking out power, and driving over 2,000 people to shelters. The first quake resulted in the death of one elderly man and injured at least eight other people.
“In some ways, this is worse than Hurricane Maria,” said the Rev. Enrique Camacho, executive director of Caritas of Puerto Rico. Caritas is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Catholic Charities USA. “After the hurricane is over, you could be in shelter or your home or family’s home.”
He said now in addition to those in shelters, more than 8,000 people are sleeping outside in tents, parks, and cars. Some have lost homes, and others are afraid of their homes collapsing on them.
“We’re receiving strong trembles and earthquakes most every day,” Camacho said.
Amid this disaster came the news Wednesday that the Trump administration was releasing billions of dollars in aid to Puerto Rico after delaying it for months. Congress allocated the funds for rebuilding the island following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. They add up to more than $8 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) disaster recovery fund.
Congress approved about $20 billion in funding for long-term rebuilding of the island’s infrastructure. Of that, HUD distributed only around $1.5 billion in 2018, despite a congressional deadline to hand out at least $8.2 billion by September 2019. The delay infuriated Democrats and led to partisan clashes between Capitol Hill and the White House.
Earlier this week, more than 40 lawmakers sent a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson requesting to meet with him over the delay.
To explain the hold, the administration cited concerns about mismanagement and corruption by the island’s politicians. A HUD official said the island has only spent $5.8 million of the $1.5 billion it received from Washington. The island also had massive debt prior to the 2017 hurricanes. Public frustration with the economy and other scandals forced Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign last August.
The administration placed new restrictions on the hurricane recovery use of the funds it just released to Puerto Rico, which are separate from an emergency declaration by the president to unlock additional earthquake aid. HUD also appointed a federal financial monitor to track the disbursements. One restriction prevents officials from putting the funds toward repairing the electrical grid. Officials will also have to submit a budget plan to the government’s fiscal control board, which must track spending.
Camacho said the aid hold-up, bureaucratic mismanagement, and partisan squabbling in Washington left residents suffering. Caritas is still helping to rebuild the homes of people who lost property in Hurricane Maria, some of whom have also suffered from the earthquakes. Camacho said he recently spent five days in Guanica, one of the most affected towns. Many houses there still have tarps for roofs.
“The truth is the funds were too slow,” he said. “There was not enough to cover the needs. … There are still thousands of houses affected.”
The slow recovery from Maria led to an exodus of young professionals from the island, leaving behind more of the elderly and infirm with fewer people to take care of them, Camacho said. Their needs present even greater challenges to ministries trying to help with earthquake recovery.
“If the president does not trust government [of Puerto Rico], he should provide funds to nonprofits, like us, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army,” Camacho said. “Or else, send someone to Puerto Rico from his administration and monitor whoever. … But the most important is to give it to the people.”
It is unclear when the newly released recovery funds will reach the island. HUD first must publish a Federal Register notice that will provide a roadmap for Puerto Rico on how it can use the money.