US House approves disaster funds as Donald Trump criticises Puerto Rico

Residents affected by Hurricane Maria wait to receive and register for unemployment benefits in Puerto Rico, Oct 12, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US House of Representatives on Thursday (Oct 12) approved US$36.5 billion (S$50 billion) in emergency relief for hurricane-hit Puerto Rico and other areas that have suffered recent disasters.

In addition to the US territory of Puerto Rico, which is recovering from devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria, the Bill will also provide funds for the storm-struck areas of Florida, Texas, and the US Virgin Islands, and fire-ravaged California.

The bipartisan Bill sailed through the Republican-controlled House - approved by a 353-to-69 vote - just hours after President Donald Trump said that government response teams could not stay in Puerto Rico "forever."

Trump's comments on Twitter on Thursday morning were followed by White House reassurances that the administration was "committed" to disaster relief in Puerto Rico.

Trump criticised Puerto Rico for "a total lack of accountability," saying "electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes".

While he noted it was up to "Congress to decide how much to spend," he also said: "We cannot keep Fema, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"

Fema is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster response in the United States.

Puerto Rico is burdened with nearly US$72 billion in pre-hurricane debt, overseen by a federally-created board. Much of the island remains without electricity or running water three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Asked for a response to Trump's remarks, the White House later said it was "committed to helping Puerto Rico" and working with local leaders and Congress "to identify the best fiscally responsible path forward."

"Successful recoveries do not last forever; they should be as swift as possible to help people resume their normal lives," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reiterated during a Thursday news briefing that the Trump administration would "stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done."

Trump's comments had prompted swift condemnation from some Democratic lawmakers, who said threatening to withdraw help from Puerto Rico would amount to abandoning US citizens as the island struggles with the storm's aftermath.

Democratic Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, said on the House floor that the island is facing a "humanitarian crisis".

"The President of the United States is tweeting out threats to withdraw assistance, that is an outrage, that is an insult," Velazquez said.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, which also has a sizeable Puerto Rican community, told Reuters that he had urged Trump to create a high-level task force to provide advice for rebuilding the island, and that the President was receptive to the idea.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would be traveling to Puerto Rico on Friday as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation to assess the damage.

The House Bill includes US$18.7 billion for Fema's disaster relief fund. Of that, US$4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure that cash-strapped Puerto Rico can keep government programmes operating beyond Oct 31, when funds are otherwise due to run out.

"Fema will be w/Puerto Rico, USVI, every state, territory impacted by a disaster every day, supporting throughout their response & recovery," Fema spokeswoman Eileen Lainez wrote on Twitter.

Other funds include US$576.5 million for the federal government's wildfire control efforts.

Some US$16 billion would go towards the National Flood Insurance Programme to help it cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.

The Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is expected to vote on the package later this month.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed that additional help would likely be needed.

"We're going to need more assistance as the days, the months go," said Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a state also dealing with hurricane aftermath.

Velazquez called Thursday's Bill a "down payment in helping the response" in Puerto Rico and other areas affected by hurricanes and wildfires.

"Let's be clear there is going to need to be much more assistance in the future," Velazquez said.

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