By Noah Kotlarek
This Friday, the White House announced it will grant Puerto Rico almost $13 billion via FEMA to restore its electrical and educational infrastructure that had been destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September of 2017. $9.6 billion will go to “repair and replace thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines, electrical substations, power generation systems [and] office buildings,” according to the White House. Another $2 billion will go to rebuilding educational buildings and related facilities. This will be the largest sum of federal money allotted to disaster repair behind those for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Though it is good that Puerto Rico is finally receiving the funds it needs, critics are quick to point out the lateness of the grants. With the general election less than two months away, skeptics believe the timing of the grants is a political move, rather than one made out of genuine concern for the people of Puerto Rico. After all, hurricanes Maria and Irma both hit Puerto Rico three years ago, rendering schools inoperable and some Puerto Ricans without power for over a year. It seems only just that the White House would have granted the restoration funds sooner.
Or at least it seems odd that the White House is choosing to act now. In 2017, Hurricane Maria was seemingly not too terribly important to President Trump. Did Trump not claim that the official estimates of $100 billion in damage and 3,000 deaths were an exaggeration and imply that the Hurricane wasn’t that bad. In fact, in March of last year, just after Democrats requested $13 to $14 billion to be included in Puerto Rico’s disaster relief package, Trump told Republican lawmakers that Puerto Rico had received too much Federal aid for the Maria recovery. In the more immediate wake of the disaster, Trump compared the effects of Hurricane Maria to “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” It seems now however, Trump has changed his mind—not then, but now, Puerto Ricans deserve relief from Hurricane Maria.
The White House and FEMA defend the tardiness of the funds claiming the three years were spent ensuring the money would be spent responsibly and negotiating with the Puerto Rican governments. Critics though, say the White House’s move is “brazenly political.” The delay, they believe, is a tactic for gaining Latinx votes for President Trump, a portion of the population Joe Biden is reportedly struggling to enlist as supporters. Critics purport that clues to Trump’s political motivations can be found in the statistics. In 2017, 5.4% of the Florida population identified as Puerto Rican and 3.7% did in Pennsylvania. (Note, in 2017, the Puerto Rican population was expected to surpass the Cuban population in Florida which was at the time 7.3%.) Alright, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans in Florida and Pennsylvania. Why does that matter? Both Florida and Pennsylvania are battleground states for Trump and Biden. In 2016, Trump won Florida by a mere 1.2 percentage points and Pennsylvania by 0.71 percentage points. As of September 18, FiveThirtyEight, reported polling showing Biden up 1 percentage point in Florida and up 7 percentage points in Pennsylvania. These two states are critical for Mr. Trump to secure his second-term.
Voters must not simply take the actions of candidates at face-value but also study the motivations behind him. Is the reason for the delay in relief funds because of ensuring responsible spending and extensive negotiating, maybe; but Mr. Trump’s previous comments, the timing of the grant, and population and voting statistics of Florida and Pennsylvania suggest otherwise. Then again, maybe Trump really is “the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico.”