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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, October 12, 2017 1:00 am

House draws up disaster relief bill

$36.5 billion for emergency funding

Bloomberg

House lawmakers unveiled a bill Tuesday night that would provide $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane and wildfire relief requested by the Trump administration.

With Congress under pressure to provide urgent help to storm victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the House measure includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, as well as $16 billion to replenish the nation's flood insurance program.

The FEMA funding includes a provision that would give Puerto Rico access to $4.9 billion in low-interest Treasury loans so it doesn't run out of cash as the island recovers. That funding is needed to help the territory pay government salaries and other expenses after Oct. 31. The bill is expected to be voted on by the full House this week and then taken up by the Senate as early as next week.

“These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said in a statement. “However, the recovery in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida will be ongoing, and more assistance will be required in the near future.”

But Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, who heads the conservative Republican Study Committee, said that he is disappointed the measure doesn't include any spending cuts to offset the disaster funding and still trying to decide whether to vote for it.

“This is a very frustrating place,” he said Wednesday.

Congress needs to act quickly, particularly when it comes to flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program needs additional funding to cover claims from all the recent storms.

Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said disaster victims deserve help from the federal government. “This package provides critical public and individual disaster assistance, flood insurance aid, liquidity for Puerto Rico's government, and help for communities devastated by wildfires,” she said in a statement.

The loan authority for Puerto Rico is also a needed financial lifeline for the U.S. territory of 3.4 million people that's been operating in bankruptcy since May, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for the government to borrow on its own.

With the island still recovering from the hurricane, much of the economy there has ground to a halt, radically curtailing the government's tax collections.

Puerto Rico's treasury secretary, Raul Maldonado, said last week that the territory is facing a government shutdown Oct. 31 that would halt its hurricane recovery efforts if Congress doesn't intervene.