WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will work with Congress to approve grants and loans to help rebuild Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria a month ago.
Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump did not give any specifics about how much money the government will give to the cash-strapped territory, home to 3.4 million U.S. citizens.
But he emphasized that repayment of federal loans and other storm-related debt owed by Puerto Rico would come before repayment of the island’s existing $72 billion in debt.
“Any money that’s put in by people — whether it’s public or private — they’re going to want to come in first position,” Trump said at the beginning of a meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.
“We’re going to come before — far before — any existing debt that’s on the island,” he said.
A month after the hurricane laid waste to the island’s power grid, destroying homes, roads and other vital infrastructure, the bankrupt territory is struggling to provide basic services like running water, and is in danger of running out of money by the end of the month.
Private sector estimates of the damage run as high as $95 billion.
The Senate is expected to vote in the coming days on an aid package that includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been helping Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from three massive hurricanes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who has been deeply involved in discussions over aid for Puerto Rico, said earlier on Thursday that he wants Congress to make changes to the House-passed bill to allow the island to quickly access funds.
Rubio said the terms of the aid require state and territorial governments to have completed the bulk of work on formal damage assessments — a process that is more difficult for Puerto Rico because it is still reeling from the catastrophic damage from the hurricane.
“Four weeks after the storm, they are where Florida was 48 hours after the storm,” Rubio told reporters after meeting with Rossello.
Another aid package
Congress is expected to consider another aid package by the end of December, but that could be too late for the island, which currently has no tax revenue, Rubio said.
“I know from experience the further away we get from these hurricanes, the less of a sense of urgency there is,” he said.
Rossello has asked the federal government for approval to use disaster aid to cover repairs to schools, buildings and power plants.
The governor has also asked the White House and Congress for at least $4.6 billion in block grants and other types of funding.
“The reality is that we still need to do a lot more for the people of Puerto Rico and that’s why we’re meeting,” Rossello said.
“This is not over, not over by a long shot.”