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HUD Releases Additional $779 Million to USVI 28 Months After Irma & Maria Made Landfall

St. Thomas 𑁋 The second tranche of the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding totaling $779 million was approved by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Governor Albert Bryan Jr. signed off on the initial release of the funds which came from HUD. 

“We now look forward to the execution of the agreement so we can continue to keep our recovery on track,” the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, Executive Director, Daryl Griffith said. The disaster funds were approved by Congress to help the territory rebuild public housing and public facilities after two hurricanes devastated the entire territory in 2017.

The grant agreement became available to the territory earlier this week, some 28 months after hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall. “After the agreement is fully executed, HUD informs VIHFA that the Territory will have access to allocate the full $779 million for all approved disaster recovery projects.” Congress allocated the $2 billion to CDBG-DR as part of its $89 billion disaster relief bill, which was passed in 2018 and left the allocation of those funds to the discretion of HUD Secretary Carson.

28 Months After Irma & Maria Made Landfall

This second tranche of CDBG-DR comes after the first tranche of $242,684,000 that the Virgin Islands received in September of 2018. The newest wave of funds brings the total funds allocated to $1.02 billion. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Washington, D.C. said that the Trump administration was slow-walking disaster funds to both Caribbean territories after a destructive 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season. 

Other House Democrats echoed Plaskett’s sentiments, arguing that the slow pace of releasing funds would actually do more harm than good for both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In early August, HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced HUD would delay the aid to the U.S. Virgin Islands due to corruption and arrests in neighboring Puerto Rico and concerns about whether the USVI had the capacity to absorb and use the funds. He said HUD would release the funding in two waves; one for storm-affected states and a second, later one for Puerto Rico and the USVI.

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. thanked the federal agency and HUD Secretary Ben Carson for keeping his promise to deliver the funding before the end of the year. “This second tranche of funding was crucial to our efforts at recovery and although it was delayed, these additional funds allow us to redouble our efforts toward recovering from Irma and Maria,” Governor Bryan said. “As our recovery from the hurricanes progresses, my Administration remains dedicated to stabilizing the Territory’s economy and rebuilding stronger for the future.”

“HUD issued a notice saying that they were going to be delaying some [of the] guidelines they were giving us, because of capacity issues that we had along with Puerto Rico’s corruption,” Plaskett said. Plaskett said she approached Congresswoman Maxine Water,s who is the chair of the Committee on Financial Services and has direct oversight over HUD — both representatives penned a joint letter condemning the agency’s handling of the disaster funds in an effort to compel officials to comply with federal law.

VIHFA launched its EnVision Tomorrow housing and rental reconstruction program last year which will be covered with the disaster funds the territory has received from the federal government. Projects also include hardening the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority’s electrical grid, infrastructure and revitalization projects and injecting new life into territory’s tourism industry and workforce.

While the circumstances regarding the withholding of disaster aid are very different from President Trump’s Ukraine scandal, where the president withheld military aid from a U.S. ally in exchange for a domestic political favor. The president’s actions eventually led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives in December. 

Abandoned Apartment Complex on St. Thomas — Source State of the Territory News

Congress similarly grilled HUD’s secretary for illegally delaying disaster aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Puerto Rico’s Federal Disaster Aid

Lawmakers last year argued that the executive branch and those serving at its pleasure are not allowed to delay funds that were appropriated by Congress — stating that delaying or canceling aid allocated by Congress is illegal.

Secretary Carson, Trump and other members of his administration cited “alleged corruption” and “fiscal irregularities” as well as capacity concerns for both territories who would both be handling large sums of disaster aid. Last year, House Democrats prohibited HUD from accessing part of its funding —  approximately $20 million — in an effort to force the agency to allow the territory to access roughly $10 billion that had been appropriated by Congress after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria. 

With Puerto Rico being rocked with protests and political instability last summer, followed by the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló as governor, the Virgin Islands, simultaneously was engulfed in a very different scandal — the Jeffery Epstein saga. At the same time, Plaskett and Waters moved to ensure that the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were separated in the language of the bill in order to dismiss accusations of corruption and keep recovery efforts on St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix moving smoothly.

The delay in funding was a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts because the territory could not begin the process of applying for the money, which starts by submitting a mitigation plan for approval. Puerto Rico has received a third of the roughly $43 billion Congress appropriated to begin rebuilding tens of thousands of homes with damaged roofs — many of which are still covered with blue tarps in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That means that an estimated $14.3 billion of the $43 billion allocated in 2018 has been disseminated to officials in Puerto Rico.

HUD officials unilaterally withheld disaster aid to Puerto Rico for 3.5 months. Two top officials with the Department of Housing and Urban Development admitted at a congressional hearing this week that the agency knowingly missed a legally required deadline that would have made desperately needed hurricane relief funding available to Puerto Rico. 

“We’re determined to show that we’re serious about this and we’re using the tools we have,” Congressman David Price said. “If this administration is going to behave in unprecedented ways to hold up legitimate processes, we’re going to have to figure out ways to influence that. It’s just as simple as that.”

Lawmakers, specifically House Democrats, threatened to partially defund HUD over its decision to circumvent Congress and illegally delay the aid intended for large mitigation projects and electrical grid modernization that would better prepare Puerto Rico for future natural disasters. Congress followed through by withholding millions of dollars from HUD after the agency delayed billions of dollars from Puerto Rico as the island faced one of its most devastating natural disasters since the island was ceded to the United States at the end of the Spanish–American War in 1898.

White House Emergency Declaration for Recent Puerto Rico Earthquakes

On Tuesday, the White House approved another emergency declaration for Puerto Rico and ordered federal assistance to supplement local response efforts after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake rocked the southern area of the island, destroying homes, schools and even leaving large cracks in the pavement.

Trump authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts to alleviate “the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in all 78 municipalities in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” the White House said in a Wednesday release.

Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency on Tuesday after a series of earthquakes killed at least one person, toppled structures and crippled much of the island’s power grid that is home to more than 3 million people. Two large power plants are currently out of operation and, drinking water was cut off to at least 300,000 customers, Vazquez told reporters in a press conference.

The emergency declaration will render support to the territory for earthquakes that began on December 28, 2019, including the powerful aftershocks that have rocked the region. The 6.4 magnitude earthquake — the largest in a series of regional tremors — has been recorded as the most powerful to impact the island in 102 years.