Trump Cabinet officials to visit Puerto Rico to assess recovery

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2017 7:39 PM

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet are set to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday to assess the U.S. territory's rebuilding in the three months since Hurricane Maria devastated homes, businesses and the power grid.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson will travel to Puerto Rico, where about a third of the island's 3.4 million residents are still without power, hundreds remain in shelters, and thousands have fled to the U.S. mainland.

The visit comes as Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday were planning to unveil a disaster aid package totaling $81 billion, according to a senior congressional aide. Some of that aid would go to Puerto Rico, but also to states like Texas and Florida that were hit by other hurricanes and to California, which is grappling with wild fires.

Even before Maria savaged Puerto Rico, the island was contending with $72 billion in debt. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has asked the federal government for a total of $94.4 billion in aid, including $31.1 billion for housing and $17.8 billion to rebuild its ruined power grid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has so far approved more than $660 million in aid for individuals in Puerto Rico as well as more than $450 million in public assistance.

Nielsen and Carson will receive detailed briefings on rebuilding efforts and see how federal aid is helping residents to recover, a DHS official said.

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Nielsen, who oversees FEMA, and Rossello are slated to hold a news conference.

The visit comes as Congress prepares to vote on a tax overhaul bill that Puerto Rican officials have said they fear will hurt the commonwealth's pharmaceutical manufacturing sector - the cornerstone of the island's economy - at a time when Puerto Rico can least afford to lose jobs and tax revenue.

Puerto Rico's government has said 64 people died because of the hurricane, but after multiple media estimates of dramatically higher figures, Rossello on Monday ordered an official review of the death toll.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Leslie Adler)