Two weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the situation on the island remains dire: Only 5 percent of the electrical grid has been repaired, only 17 percent of cellphone towers are working, and more than half of residents don't have running water.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not authorized every disaster response tool it has at its disposal — including aid for more permanent repairs on the island's roads, bridges, water control facilities, public utilities, and government buildings. FEMA authorized this level of aid for Texas 10 days after Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston area with 4.5 feet of rain.
The government of Puerto Rico already asked for this kind of aid: Under FEMA rules, the governor of the affected state is supposed to put in a formal request for this kind of extra help. A spokesperson for FEMA in Puerto Rico told Vox that the commonwealth just submitted the paperwork Tuesday morning, but didn't say how soon the aid might be authorized.
President Trump could speed up the process if he cared to. The Stafford Act, which gives FEMA authority to carry out emergency missions, also gives the president broad discretion in guiding the agency's efforts: The president “may provide accelerated federal assistance and federal support where necessary to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate severe damage” even without “a specific request.”
If Trump wanted to, in other words, he could fast-track FEMA's response in Puerto Rico. He could even authorize the federal government to rebuild the island. But there’s no sign that he intends to.
Funding infrastructure repairs is part of FEMA's mission
After the president declares a major disaster zone at a governor's request, FEMA generally provides initial emergency help for local governments and individuals. This is known as A-B public assistance. The idea is that a natural disaster caused so much damage that state and local governments are not equipped to help people on their own.
This is the kind of assistance that Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands all got within a day or so after recent hurricanes. Emergency responders from multiple federal agencies and nonprofits are deployed to the area to rescue disaster victims and meet their basic needs: food, water, shelter, and medical care. Part of the aid involves getting critical infrastructure to operate.
There are also extended categories of help known as C-G assistance. Unlike the initial emergency response, this level of help is more about reconstruction. FEMA provides grants to local governments to rebuild damaged infrastructure at a reasonable cost. Local governments can then hire contractors and utility crews to fix schools, sewage plants, government offices, etc. The federal government will pay at least 75 percent of the cost, but the president could decide to cover it all. After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA spent $9.9 billion rebuilding the New Orleans area as part of this program.
Puerto Rico needs this kind of help right away.
Fixing damaged infrastructure has been an insurmountable challenge for responders in Puerto Rico. The hurricane completely wiped out the island's cellphone towers and electrical grid, so it's been immensely hard for emergency responders to provide basic help. They have struggled to contact remote towns, and many roads are still impassable. It took days to open shipping ports and the international airport.
A few days after the storm, a Department of Energy responder told Vox that damage to the electrical grid would cost billions of dollars to repair, with nearly 80 percent of transmission lines down and 100 percent of the wires connecting homes and businesses wrecked. "We cannot do this whole thing on our own," he told me at the time.
Restoring power, communications, and running water isn’t the kind of work that emergency responders can do. Puerto Rico needs utility crews and government contractors from the US mainland. So far, that's not happening, and it won't until FEMA authorizes the C-G categories.
Texas is already getting this aid
On September 4, 10 days after Harvey flooded the Texas coast, FEMA authorized the category C-G response for 27 counties in the state, including the Houston area. A few days later, it agreed to fund 90 percent of those costs, instead of the standard 75 percent. The current rebuilding efforts includes restoring city parks, public buildings, roads, and bridges that were damaged by the excessive rain and flooding in the area.
On Wednesday, it will be two weeks since Hurricane Maria inflicted even worse damage on Puerto Rico. FEMA has yet to authorize the same level of response. President Trump doesn't seem inclined to do more for the island, possibly because of the enormous cost: There are no official damage estimates yet, but fixing the electric grid alone will cost billions of dollars, according to the Department of Energy.
Puerto Rico is in no position to rebuild on its own. The island's government is broke, and declared a form of bankruptcy in May. Puerto Rico can no longer borrow money and will probably need the US government to pay most of its reconstruction costs.
Under the Stafford Act, the president could decide to do just that:
In any major disaster, the president may direct any Federal agency, with or without reimbursement, to utilize its authorities and the resources granted to it under Federal law (including personnel, equipment, supplies, facilities, and managerial, technical, and advisory services) in support of State and local assistance response and recovery efforts.
Yet the president is not inclined to help Puerto Rico. Trump has repeatedly pointed to the fiscal crisis on the island as the root of the problem, and has painted Puerto Ricans as lazy people who want the government to do everything.
Under the law, FEMA is supposed to treat Puerto Rico like a US state. Instead, Trump and the agency are leaving the island to struggle on its own.