WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced Friday that it would release nearly $13 billion in aid to Puerto Rico to help the island rebuild its electrical grid and repair schools from the devastation of Hurricane Maria three years earlier amid criticism that the assistance was overdue and being released now only for political purposes.
The grant comes as President Donald Trump, who has balked at providing assistance to the island territory, and former Vice President Joe Biden court voters in Florida, home to a large population of people from Puerto Rico — including many who fled Hurricane Maria. Florida is a critical swing state in the Nov. 3 election.
Trump blamed the delay on Democrats in Congress who approved the funding and pushed for its release.
“I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico, no one even close,” he said at a White House press conference.
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez thanked Trump and the government for the grant, among the largest ever awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster relief. “Working as a team yields results,” she said in one of a series of tweets about the funds.
Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, a New York Democrat, said the timing was notable, three years after the storm knocked out the territory’s problem-plagued electrical grid and caused the longest blackout in U.S. history.
“The Trump Administration delayed, dragged its feet and resisted allocating these badly needed funds,” said Velazquez, who was born in Puerto Rico. “Now, forty-six days before the election, the administration has finally seen fit to release these funds.”
Trump in the past has opposed providing additional aid to Puerto Rico, arguing it received too much already and expressing concern that the money would be wasted or misspent.
In the aftermath of the storm, he publicly feuded with the mayor of San Juan over her criticism of his administration’s response to the storm. Trump irritated many by tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd during a visit to an island church. Democrats earlier this year posted an image of the scene on a billboard in Kissimmee, a heavily Puerto Rican city in central Florida.
Trump dismissed that history as he discussed the aid disbursement and pledged to revitalize Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturing industry, which has been in decline in part due to the 1996 repeal of tax incentives.
“I think you are going to see a rebuilding of Puerto Rico,” he said.
Hurricane Maria slammed into the island in September 2017 with winds of 155 mph, causing an estimated $100 billion in damage and killing nearly 3,000 people, according to the official death toll. In September 2018, Trump suggested that the real death toll was less than 100, saying the estimate of 2,975 deaths “was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
Even now, thousands of homes are still damaged.
Power wasn’t restored island-wide until nearly 11 months after the storm. The system remains vulnerable, with outages affecting tens of thousands of people on a regular basis.
“After the storms utterly destroyed the grid, it created an opportunity to rebuild a cleaner, cheaper and more resilient energy system, but the Trump administration dithered and delayed and refused to deliver timely disaster aid for the people of Puerto Rico,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader.
The White House said $9.6 billion of the new funding is intended to help the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority repair and replace thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines, electrical substations, power generation systems, office buildings, and make other grid improvements.
It said $2 billion would be for the Puerto Rico Department of Education to repair schools across the island.
With this latest grant, the White House said the government has allocated about $26 billion for the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. Congress has approved about $43 billion.
In October, the island’s government announced a 10-year plan to modernize and strengthen the power grid at a projected cost of around $20 billion.
This story has been updated with remarks from Friday’s White House press conference.