The Trump administration delayed more than $20bn in hurricane relief aid for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General.
The efforts to deliver recovery funding to the island were “unnecessarily delayed by bureaucratic obstacles”, according to the 46-page report. The hurricane, which hit the island in 2017, killed thousands of people and left thousands more without electricity or water for months.
One of the main hurdles was the requirement imposed by the Office of Management Budget, which established an interagency review before grant approvals, according to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The process, which was never before required for allocating disaster funds, prevented HUD from publishing its draft notice of funding by the target date.
The investigators were unable to determine why the extra layer of review was required due “denials of access and refusals to cooperate”, according to the report.
The Office conducted 31 interviews of 20 current and former HUD officials and two now-former Puerto Rico Department of Housing senior officials to write the report. However, investigators did not have access to former HUD Secretary Ben Carson and other political officials. The investigators were also denied or delayed HUD information on several occasions.
The report found that HUD’s review and approval of their funding action plan for Puerto Rico was delayed due to the 2018-2019 government shutdown.
“Staffing shortages due to the shutdown and miscommunications between HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing pertaining to the grantee’s bank information delayed PRDOH’s ability to access grant funds until several days after the shutdown ended,” reads the document.
The Office of the Inspector General investigation also said that both former HUD Secretary and former HUD Assistant Secretary Brian Montgomery expressed “mounting concerns and frustrations” to then OMB director Russell Vought about HUD’s “inability” to expedite the release of funds.
The report was conducted after a request from representatives Nydia Velazquez, Bennie Thompson, and Raul Grijalva to investigate several allegations that had been reported in a January 2019 Washington Post article related to the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) funds appropriated for Puerto Rico.
In February 2020, the Office of the Inspector General received a request from Senators Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Bernie Sanders and Chris Van Hollen, and Representatives Joaquin Castro, Darren Soto, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, James P McGovern, Raul Grijvala, and Jose Serrano, asking the Office to conduct an inquiry into whether delays in HUD’s release of the disaster-recovery funds for Puerto Rico violated the Impoundment Control Act of 1974.
On Monday, HUD removed restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on access to $8.2bn in Community Development Block Grant Mitigation. The agency stalled the release of the disaster relief aid in 2019 and imposed additional restrictions on how the island could access the funds The agency cited corruption and financial mismanagement concerns for the blocks.
Hurricane Maria hit hundreds of thousands of homes on 20 September, 2017, and many were still living under blue tarps three years later.
More than 5,000 people died in Puerto Rico in 2017 due to the hurricane, according to a study by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. A George Washington University suggests more than 2,000 died due to the hurricane.
On Wednesday, a group of Puerto Rican scientists said they will begin to conduct verbal autopsies or surveys with relatives, friends and other acquaintances of the fatal victims of the hurricane. The study aims to elaborate on the causes and factors that contributed to the deaths.
The study is a collaboration between the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health and George Washington University, which were hired by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and will conduct the report as part of an order by the US Congress.
“Some people might have died instantly due to drowning, landslides or collapses, but others might have died days, weeks or months later due to socio-environmental and infrastructure factors, such as the lack of water or electricity, oxygen or medicines,” Pablo Méndez Lázaro, associate professor of the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health, told a local news outlet.