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PolitiFact Florida: Donald Trump falsely tweets that Puerto Rico got $91 billion in hurricane aid

Trump is wrong about the dollar amount the territory has received and wrong when he said it was a record.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3, 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Published Apr. 8

After Democrats and Republicans in the Senate failed to reach an agreement on disaster aid for Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump falsely tweeted about the amount of hurricane aid already distributed.

“Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money. The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA....,” Trump tweeted April 2.

Then he praised his own leadership:

“....The best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump. So many wonderful people, but with such bad Island leadership and with so much money wasted. Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments, and so little appreciation!”

We found that Trump is wrong about the dollar amount the territory has received and wrong when he said it was a record.

His comments about hurricane aid follow other misleading statements he made related to the 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico. Trump mischaracterized the death toll saying the estimate was “done by Democrats,” and he exaggerated the poor condition of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid before the hurricanes.

The future of aid to Puerto Rico is up in the air after the Senate failed to move forward on legislation. Both parties have pointed fingers at each other for not reaching an agreement after months of proposals.

While proposals from both parties have included $600 million for food assistance for Puerto Rico, Democrats want millions more for other needs in Puerto Rico including for the electrical grid, FEMA reimbursement and water projects.

Puerto Rico has not received $91 billion

The federal government’s recovery website shows $40.7 billion has been allocated (Congress appropriated the spending) through December 2018. Of that, $19.4 billion has been obligated (the government has promised to spend the money) and of that $11.2 billion has been spent. The money comes from various agencies and funds including FEMA, U.S. Housing and Urban Development, the Community Development Fund and the Disaster Relief Fund.

A senior administration official told PolitiFact that Trump arrived at the $91 billion figure by combining the roughly $41 billion already allocated with additional estimated future FEMA costs of $50 billion. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker wrote that the $50 billion was a high-end estimate of what would need to be committed under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988.)

That means the $50 billion is speculative, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“It may be spent, it may not, and some of it will be far into the future,” he said.

How far into the future? A look at Katrina spending shows it can last for more than a decade after a storm.

There is still Disaster Relief Fund money being paid out related to Katrina (and Rita and Wilma, also 2005 storms), to the tune of nearly $200 million this year, Ellis said.

Sorting out exactly how much the federal government has spent after disasters is tricky. Some hurricanes hit more than one state, and some states receive money for multiple disasters.

Comparing how much various jurisdictions have gotten for different disasters is not an apples-to-apples comparison because some disasters create more damage. Comparisons to disaster aid in Puerto Rico versus other storms also omits inflation and that it is more expensive to get disaster supplies to Puerto Rico ,which is located approximately 1,000 nautical miles from the U.S. mainland.

“Obviously Puerto Rico is not in the continental U.S. so all supplies have to be sent by ship or plane, which increases costs,” Ellis said. “You can truck supplies into Louisiana and Texas and Florida. Inflation is a factor — $1 billion in 2005 is worth more than $1 billion in 2017.”

Not more than ever

Federal officials did not respond to our questions asking how Trump concluded that the $91 billion figure was more than any other disaster. But federal reports show that the government has already spent more on Hurricane Katrina — and that’s without factoring in inflation. The Congressional Research Service estimated in 2014 that “Congress provided roughly $120 billion for Hurricane Katrina.”

In his attack on Puerto Rico disaster spending, Trump said that we “cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments, and so little appreciation!”

The federal government pays for disasters in various states and the territory of Puerto Rico, which is a part of the United States. (This is despite the comments by White House spokesman Hogan Gidley on MSNBC who referred to Puerto Rico as “that country.” He called it a slip of the tongue.)

Our ruling

Trump tweeted "Puerto Rico got $91 Billion for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before.

Trump arrived at that figure by combining the $41 billion already allocated with additional estimated future FEMA costs over the life of the disaster of $50 billion. But that future payment is speculative, and it will be years before we know how much of it is realized.

Even if the $91 billion is the ultimate cost down the road, the federal government already has estimated it spent $120 billion on Hurricane Katrina.

We rate this claim False.

We rate this claim False.

Read more rulings at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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