Republican Senator Marco Rubio urged the U.S. Congress on Thursday to make changes to a disaster relief bill so that cash-strapped Puerto Rico can quickly access funds it needs to respond to the basic needs of its 3.4 million residents.
After meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, Rubio said the territorial government is at risk of shutting down in the next 30 to 45 days because it has no money. He urged the Senate to adjust the terms of the aid in a bill passed by the House of Representatives last week.
A month after Hurricane Maria 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 pay its bills.
Private sector estimates of the damage to the U.S. territory 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.
But 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 of the catastrophic damage from the hurricane, Rubio said.
“Four weeks after the storm, they are where Florida was 48 hours after the storm,” said Rubio, a Republican from Florida who has been deeply involved in discussions over aid for the territory.
“They’re still dealing with the acute, immediate challenges,” he told reporters.
Rossello, who was to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House at 12:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, has asked 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 White House budget office is working on internal estimates of funding needs and Congress is expected to consider another aid package by the end of December.
But that could come too late for cash-strapped Puerto Rico, Rubio said, noting the island currently has no tax revenue.
“I know from experience the further away we get from these hurricanes, the less of a sense of urgency there is,” Rubio said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Dan Grebler)