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Trump takes money from FEMA for border wall with Puerto Rico set for major storm

FEMA is already cash-strapped and under-staffed, with hurricane season ramping up.

Workers of the Emergency Operation Centre (COE) monitor Tropical Storm Dorian in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on August 27, 2019. CREDIT: ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images
Workers of the Emergency Operation Centre (COE) monitor Tropical Storm Dorian in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on August 27, 2019. CREDIT: ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is moving nearly $300 million dollars from agencies including the cash-strapped and under-staffed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), even as a growing tropical storm heads toward Puerto Rico and the southeastern United States.

That money will instead fund border security programs, including immigrant detention overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It comes with hurricane season ramping up, even as Puerto Rico and other parts of the country lag in recovery efforts following devastating storms over the past two years.

Democratic leadership this week criticized President Donald Trump’s prioritization of hardline immigration policies over disaster preparation and relief. But Trump has ignored those comments, focusing instead on Puerto Rico, a long-running source of ire for the White House.

With Dorian — currently a tropical storm with the potential to become a hurricane — drawing nearer to the United States, Trump on Wednesday morning tweeted that, “as usual,” Puerto Rico would likely face extreme weather. The president’s comments referenced Hurricane Maria in 2017, which left the island completely devastated.

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“FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You – Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!” wrote Trump. Puerto Ricans have repeatedly criticized the president for his handling of Maria, with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz among the loudest naysayers.

Trump’s latest remarks followed a Tuesday tweet, in which the president wrote, “Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end?”

Trump has historically claimed — falsely — that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in aid from the U.S. government, using the number as a justification for blocking more funds for the island. He appeared to return to that line of argument with his tweets on Tuesday. “Congress approved 92 Billion Dollars for Puerto Rico last year, an all time record of its kind for ‘anywhere,'” he asserted.

As a small island off the southeastern U.S. coast, Puerto Rico is disproportionately vulnerable to hurricanes. A slow recovery from Maria has also left the island in poor condition to respond to yet another hurricane.

As part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FEMA has endured repeated criticism over the agency’s botched response to Maria, with internal findings showing FEMA was deeply understaffed and ill-prepared to deal with a disaster on the scale of the Category 5 hurricane at the time. Since the departure of agency head Brock Long earlier this year, FEMA also remains without a permanent administrator.

During a hearing this June, acting FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor admitted that the agency was “short a few thousand employees” with Atlantic hurricane season already underway. Long, the agency’s former head, told E&E in a recent interview that the agency “is dying a death by 1,000 cuts” as it struggles to overcome staffing and budget challenges, as well as a lack of direction.

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Now, FEMA is set for another blow. Trump administration officials on Tuesday said that $271 million in funds will be moved from several agencies to support border enforcement. Of that amount, $155 million will come from FEMA, while the rest will come from the U.S. Coast Guard and other sources.

When DHS notified Congress about the transfer in July, officials said that “absent significant new catastrophic events” FEMA’s disaster relief fund is expected to operate smoothly without the additional money.

Democrats, however, have slammed the decision. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called the move “stunningly reckless” and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) panned the White House’s priorities.

“Taking these critical funds from disaster preparedness and recovery efforts threatens lives and weakens the government’s ability to help Americans in the wake of natural disasters,” Schumer said. Organizations including Amnesty International similarly criticized the Trump administration’s actions as “outrageous.”

Moving money around between federal agencies is common and, under Trump, DHS has directed millions from FEMA and others to ICE. But the looming prospect of Dorian is likely to heighten tensions, particularly in Puerto Rico.

Dorian approaches Puerto Rico. CREDIT: Earth Simulator
Dorian approaches Puerto Rico. CREDIT: Earth Simulator

As of Wednesday morning, the island was under hurricane watch and had declared a state of emergency. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said that Dorian will likely gain some speed before passing over Puerto Rico on Wednesday. The U.S. Virgin Islands are also bracing for rain and flooding.

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But things could worsen from there. An updated forecast has Dorian regaining speed and strengthening to a Category 2 hurricane as it moves past the islands and heads towards Florida, potentially hitting as early as Sunday.

Trump, for his part, continued tweeting late into Wednesday morning, taking aim at Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth,” the president declared. “And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!”