By Andrew Restuccia and Andrew Scurria 

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration announced $11.6 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, as the U.S. territory continues to struggle from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the president's reelection campaign courts Puerto Rican voters in Florida.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration infrastructure grants include $9.6 billion in federal funding for the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority, the island's bankrupt public power monopoly known as Prepa, to repair the island's electric grid. The administration also announced $2 billion for the island's education department to rebuild schools.

The September 2017 hurricane killed an estimated 3,000 people, but some outside studies say that figure could be higher. It decimated the island's power grid and led to flooding and landslides that destroyed much of the territory's infrastructure. This summer, Hurricane Isaias also caused flooding and damage on the island, and it was hit by a series of earthquakes earlier this year.

Mr. Trump has in the past expressed reluctance to send aid to Puerto Rico, raising concerns about corruption on the island and asserting that the money would be misused. The president has also publicly criticized Puerto Rican officials. In 2018, he falsely accused Democrats of inflating the death toll from the hurricane to "make me look as bad as possible."

The release of the aid comes as Mr. Trump is trailing in national polls behind his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the pair are running neck-and-neck in Florida. Both campaigns view Florida, with its growing Puerto Rican population, as a crucial state.

Mr. Biden has ramped up outreach to Florida's Latino voters amid polling that shows Mr. Trump has a narrow edge over the former vice president in that demographic. Mr. Biden recently campaigned in the city of Kissimmee, which has a large Puerto Rican population, and his campaign called for establishing a federal working group for Puerto Rico and boosting federal assistance toward rebuilding the island's infrastructure and other economic recovery efforts.

The groundwork for the release of aid for Puerto Rico's battered energy grid was laid in June when Prepa signed a long-term deal to privatize the business of delivering electricity.

The agreement was designed to address a litany of problems that have long beset the public monopoly -- years of underinvestment, a legacy of political interference, roughly $9 billion in debt and a tattered power infrastructure.

Prepa emerged as a crown-jewel government asset during the 1940s and 1950s, powering Puerto Rico's postwar industrialization efforts and helping to turn it into a manufacturing hub for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But the utility became less efficient over time, skimping on capital investments while piling up debts. It was also plagued by frequent turnover in its ranks, with high-level executives cycling in and out depending on the party in power.

Trump administration officials made clear that assistance for the power grid was conditioned on Puerto Rico taking steps to reform the utility, reflecting the president's concerns that money sent to the territory from Washington wouldn't be well-spent, people familiar with the matter said.

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D., N.Y.) said Puerto Rico "has been desperate for federal assistance to modernize and upgrade its electrical grid for years, especially since Hurricane Maria inflicted on the Island the longest blackout in modern history."

"Yet, as is too often the case with Puerto Rico, the Trump administration delayed, dragged its feet and resisted allocating these badly needed funds," the congresswoman said.

Write to Andrew Restuccia at and Andrew Scurria at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 18, 2020 12:53 ET (16:53 GMT)

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