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FEMA Awards $2 Billion to Help Repair Puerto Rico’s Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 18, 2020 2 min read
Students walk through a dark hallway during a class change in January at Jaime Coira School in Ciales, Puerto Rico. Months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the school still had no power and only one generator.
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The Trump administration has announced a grant to help repair Puerto Rico’s schools that have been damaged by natural disasters, although the money provided could fall well short of what’s required to address the education infrastructure needs in the U.S. territory.

The $2 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency grant money “will focus on restoring school buildings and educational facilities across the island,” the White House said in a press release Friday. A separate $9.6 billion FEMA grant is for improving power lines, substations, and other infrastructure run by the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority—a move that could also end up helping schools.

The new FEMA grants bring total federal disaster aid to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria to $26 billion, the White House said.

Puerto Rico’s schools struggled with basic infrastructure needs long before Hurricane Maria, but the 2017 storm made the situation far worse. Last year, the island’s education secretary at the time, Julia Keleher, estimated that it would cost $11 billion to repair buildings and bring them up to code.

Trump has called his administration’s response to the hurricane as an “incredible, unsung success.” During a Friday news conference discussing the new FEMA grants, Trump said, “I have to say in the best way, in a very respectful way, that I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico. Not even close.”

But some have pointed to the storm’s long-lasting impact on the island and said Trump should take a significant share of the blame.

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

Puerto Ricans living in Florida are seen by the 2020 campaigns as a key group of voters. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released his own plan for Puerto Rico recently.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., a native of Puerto Rico, said Friday that the Trump administration had “dragged its feet” and taken far too long to provide the aid.

“Forty-six days before the election, the Administration has finally seen fit to release these funds,” Velázquez said in a statement. “While I certainly hope to see this money put to good use making Puerto Rico’s electrical system more resilient, these delays are unacceptable, and it is insulting to Puerto Ricans everywhere that the Administration is so blatantly playing politics with this aid.”

Earlier this year, we looked at how Puerto Rico’s students and teachers were trying to adapt to learning conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic. Over the summer, the U.S. Department of Education placed restrictions on the territory’s access to federal education pandemic relief.

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