U.S. loan to Puerto Rico a start, but more aid to come: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. federal government is working on a long-term plan to help Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricane Maria tore up the island territory’s power grid and other infrastructure three weeks ago, an administration official said on Wednesday.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on Thursday on a disaster relief bill that includes a $4.9 billion loan for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of a $36.5 billion package to help Americans recover from hurricanes and wildfires.

But the loan is intended to be a short-term measure to help the cash-strapped island territory pay urgent bills, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The Community Disaster Loan cannot and does not address the recovery, rebuilding and future of Puerto Rico, which the administration intends to address with a more long-term solution in concert with the Puerto Rican government, oversight board, court and Congress,” the official said.

The broader package set for the House vote includes $576.6 million for wildfire efforts, $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance program and a provision enabling low-income Puerto Ricans to receive emergency nutrition assistance.

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House Speaker Paul Ryan is set to travel to Puerto Rico on Friday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to see the hurricane damage, a spokesman said.

The White House last week asked government agencies to begin estimating how much money is needed to help hurricane-hit states and territories recover and rebuild.

Puerto Rico, home to 3.4 million American citizens, is in a particular bind, already grappling with nearly $72 billion in debt before Hurricane Maria - the worst storm in almost a century - hit its shores. Estimates of the cost to its economy range as high as $95 billion.

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello has asked for $4.6 billion as a “down payment on hurricane recovery efforts,” including $3.2 billion in block grants.

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The oversight board charged with resolving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis told the U.S. Treasury Department that the island’s government would run out of money at the end of the month without help.

The loan is earmarked for payroll and pensions, but cannot be used for debt service.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Makini Brice; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Bill Trott and G Crosse