Trump declares Puerto Rico quake disaster, ties strings to relief

(Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday declared a major disaster in earthquake-hit Puerto Rico, boosting aid to the island a day after placing tougher restrictions on billions of dollars in delayed hurricane relief.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of a damaged church after the earthquake in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Republican Trump has repeatedly clashed with Puerto Rico, calling the island “one of the most corrupt places on earth.” He faced pressure to make the declaration from fellow Republican legislators in states such as Florida, who have large Puerto Rican constituencies.

Wanda Vazquez, governor of the U.S. territory, requested the aid after a Jan. 7 earthquake and aftershocks collapsed or damaged hundreds of homes in southern Puerto Rico, sending 8,000 people fleeing to shelters.

The declaration gives residents in hard-hit southern towns access to federal grants for home repairs and temporary housing.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration imposed dozens of new conditions on the island’s government to access $8.3 billion in delayed recovery funds for Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

Trump has described Puerto Rico’s leaders as either “incompetent or corrupt” and officials said the conditions were necessary to get the funds to Puerto Ricans.

“Trump is working to ensure the people of Puerto Rico are getting the funds they need, while also holding the Puerto Rican government accountable,” said Chase Jennings, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

Democratic legislators said Trump was holding Puerto Rico to a higher standard than U.S. states and called on Trump to release tens of billions more in delayed hurricane aid.

“The president considers disaster recovery money nothing more than a bargaining chip in his petty political vendetta against people of color,” said U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, among House Democrats who proposed $3.35 billion in earthquake aid for Puerto Rico.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, supported the new conditions as a way to release stalled aid.

“At least there’s a path to getting the money out,” he said.

The U.S. government has distributed around $15 billion of the $44 billion in aid the U.S. Congress approved for Puerto Rico after the hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people.

Among new restrictions on the relief is a requirement Puerto Rico’s government get approval for aid spending from the island’s Fiscal Control Board, a federally-appointed agency for restructuring the territory’s debt.

The requirements also block spending on Puerto Rico’s ageing electricity grid and suspend its $15-per-hour minimum wage for federal relief work.

Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico, additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool