Disaster aid for hurricanes, wildfires set to be approved by House

Despite his criticisms of Puerto Rico, President Trump has requested aid for the territory hit hard by hurricanes, along with aid for Florida, Texas, and California. The House is set to approve $36.5 billion of disaster relief.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference in September at the Capitol in Washington. The House is expected to approve a $36.5 billion disaster relief plan for areas hit by hurricanes and wildfires this fall.

The House is on track to backing President Trump's request for billions more in disaster aid, $16 billion to pay flood insurance claims, and emergency funding to help the cash-strapped government of Puerto Rico stay afloat.

Thursday's hurricane aid package totals $36.5 billion and sticks close to a White House request, ignoring – for now – huge demands from the powerful Florida and Texas delegations, who together pressed for some $40 billion more.

Yet Mr. Trump criticized the US territory early Thursday, saying it shouldn't expect federal help to last "forever." In a series of tweets, the president said "electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes" and blamed Puerto Rico for its looming financial crisis and "a total lack of accountability."

He tweeted: "We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"

A steady series of disasters – massive flooding in Texas, hurricane damage in Florida, and a humanitarian crisis in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico – could be putting 2017 on track to rival Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 storms as the most costly set of disasters ever. Katrina required about $110 billion in emergency appropriations.

The bill combines $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $16 billion to permit the financially troubled federal flood insurance program pay an influx of Harvey-related claims. Another $577 million would pay for western firefighting efforts.

Up to $5 billion of the FEMA money could be used to help local governments – especially Puerto Rico's central government and the island's local governments – remain functional as they endure unsustainable cash shortfalls in the aftermath of Maria, which has choked off revenues and strained resources.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin is traveling to Puerto Rico on Friday. He has promised that the US territory will get what it needs, but most of the island remains without power, and many of its more isolated residents still lack drinking water.

"It's not easy when you're used to living in an American way of life, and then somebody tell you that you're going to be without power for six or eight months," said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who represents Puerto Rico as a non-voting member of Congress. "It's not easy when you are continue to suffer — see the suffering of the people without food, without water, and actually living in a humanitarian crisis."

Republicans controlling Congress, who had protracted debates last year on modest requests by former President Barack Obama to combat the Zika virus and help Flint, Mich., repair its lead-tainted water system, are moving quickly to take care of this year's alarming series of disasters, quickly passing a $15.3 billion measure last month and signaling that another installment is coming next month.

Several lawmakers from hurricane-hit states said a third interim aid request is anticipated shortly – with a final, huge hurricane recovery and rebuilding package likely to be acted upon by the end of the year.

"Another tranche is coming in maybe two, three weeks," said Rep. Pete Olsen (R) of Texas. Representative Olsen said several members of the Texas delegation won assurances from Ryan that more money is on its way.

"I'm counting on the next supplemental adding the funds for Texas," said Rep. John Carter (R) of Texas.

Democrats embraced the package which was before lawmakers Thursday. It includes an estimated $1 billion added by the House Appropriations Committee to address California's ongoing wildfire disasters, a priority for minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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