Puerto Rico is getting $13 billion in additional federal disaster funding to help rebuild its energy grid and repair schools, which were ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

The money comes a full three years after the deadly storm and just six weeks before the presidential election, with Democrats and Republicans battling for Puerto Rican voters in crucial Florida.

Gov. Wanda Vazquez, R, on Friday called the payment the largest approval in the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and said it was thanks to a “good relationship” with the White House and President Donald Trump.

“Our legacy during this administration — and for the people of Puerto Rico — is the complete reconstruction of the island, starting with the power company and education,” said Vazquez, who recently lost in her party’s primary and will soon leave office.

A sign reads “4645” near empty pairs of shoes outside the Capitol building during a protest of the government’s underreporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 1, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Xavier Garcia

Democrats are raising questions about the timing. Both parties are courting the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have settled in Florida, America’s largest swing state. Some came after Maria, when an estimated 3,000 died and some parts of the island were left powerless for the better part of year.

U.S. House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat with a key role in Puerto Rican affairs, said the funding had been withheld.

“Four years of Trump administration abuse and neglect have caused preventable deaths in Puerto Rico, and today’s announcement will not erase Puerto Rican memories of how the president has treated the island and its people,” Grijalva’s office said in a statement.

In a visit to the Central Florida bastion of the Puerto Rican community this week, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden proposed a debt-relief program for the island, which is also trying to emerge from a historic bankruptcy and a deep economic downturn.

A person on horseback passes a sports arena damaged during Hurricane Maria in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 25, 2019, 17 months after the storm. Bloomberg photo by Xavier Garcia

The latest funds are in addition to the $49.9 billion in aid that Congress has approved since Hurricane Maria raked the U.S. commonwealth. Of those original funds, $25.5 billion has been obligated and $16.7 billion has been spent.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority — one of the U.S.’s largest public utilities — runs the notoriously fragile and expensive power grid. This year, the company signed an estimated $100 million contract with a private consortium called Luma Energy to manage power transmission and distribution for the next 15 years.

Though residents on the island of 3.2 million people are U.S. citizens, they can’t vote in presidential elections. The diaspora is seen as critical to winning central Florida.

Some 209,000 Florida voters were born in Puerto Rico, according to 2018 voter roll data compiled and analyzed by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith. That’s up by about 17,200 since 2016, just slightly more than the 16,700 Cuba-born Florida residents that joined voter rolls in the same period.

While sizable, the numbers of new Puerto Rican voters pale in comparison to some early projections of the Hurricane Maria exodus. Puerto Ricans’ turnout in the last presidential election year was just 66%. By comparison, participation was 77% for Cuban-born voters.


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