By Andrew BEATTY
Washington (AFP) Oct 4, 2017
US President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked Congress for a bumper $29 billion package of emergency relief after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico.
According to a White House letter, Trump asked for a package that includes $12.77 billion in disaster relief and a $16 billion bailout to keep a critical flood insurance program running.
Top Congressional Republican said the federal government has sent aid to storm-hit regions "but more is clearly needed, and this funding request will help meet that need."
The call for more money comes after Trump visited the US island on Tuesday.
He shook hands with storm survivors, lobbed rolls of paper towels into a crowd and tried to slap down critics who judged his administration's response to the disaster too slow.
But he also raised eyebrows by suggesting residents should be "proud" that Maria did not kill as many people as "a real catastrophe like Katrina" -- which ravaged New Orleans in 2005.
He also foreshadowed a sizable aid program: "I hate to tell you Puerto Rico but you threw our budget a little out of whack," he said, causing awkward looks. "But that's fine."
Trump also sent financial markets fluttering when he suggested Puerto Rico's $70 billion-plus debt would have to be wiped out.
Markets reacted poorly to the comments -- which were quickly walked back by White House officials.
Investors holding Puerto Rico's debt have been in a long tussle to minimize their losses.
After Trump's remarks, bonds due to mature in 2035 traded at 32.25 cents on the dollar, down from 44 cents on Tuesday.
Even before the monster storm, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, the territory had declared a form of bankruptcy and said its economy was in a "death spiral."
After falling into recession a decade ago, Puerto Rico debt-financed its budget. US lawmakers last year put the island's finances under federal administration, suspending lawsuits from creditors, but legal battles have continued.
The package is significantly larger than the $15 billion hurricane relief package previously approved for Texas after Hurricane Harvey, but is likely to be only a fraction of what the island needs.
Potential damage from Hurricane Maria is estimated at between $40 billion and $80 billion, according to IHS Markit, an analytics firm.
The debt relief portion is expected to come with no conditions attached.
But it may include recommendations to reform a country wide flood insurance program that was due to run out of cash by the end of the month.
The disaster relief portion of the funding is expected to keep Puerto Rico going until the end of the year.
Nearly two weeks after Maria thrashed through the US territory, seven percent of the island has electricity, more than 9,000 people are living in shelters, and just 40 percent of telecommunications are back up.
Former US presidents to gather for hurricane benefit gig
Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter will appear together at a hurricane relief concert at Texas A&M University on October 21.
The three Democrats and two Republicans have teamed up to raise money for the victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The event, titled "Deep From the Heart: The One America Appeal" will feature Alabama, The Gatlin Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Sam Moore.
In a statement, George W. Bush said the members of this most exclusive of clubs were "very grateful to these wonderful performers -- some of them old friends, some of them new -- for giving their time and talent to help the urgent cause of hurricane recovery in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean."
UN chief to visit devastated Caribbean islands
Guterres will travel to Antigua, Barbuda and Dominica on Saturday to get a close-up view of the damage wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria that hit within two weeks.
The United Nations has launched an appeal for $113.9 million to cover urgent humanitarian needs, but "on the whole, I regret to report, the response has been poor," Guterres told reporters.
He said small islands like Dominica -- population 73,000 -- must be given access to special financing mechanisms because they are unable to tap into normal capital markets.
The United Nations is working with the World Bank to carry out disaster assessments and help the islands rebuild with a view to becoming more resilient to extreme weather fueled by climate change.
"A warmer climate turbocharges the intensity of hurricanes," said Guterres. "Instead of dissipating, they pick up fuel as they move across the ocean."
Barbuda was devastated by Irma, a monster Category 5 hurricane that unleashed winds of 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour for 37 hours -- the longest on record at that intensity.
Harvey and Irma marked the first time that two Category 4 storms made landfall in the United States in the same year, said the UN chief.
Maria decimated Dominica and had a severe impact across Puerto Rico, the US island visited by President Donald Trump on Tuesday.
Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit made an emotional appeal when he addressed the UN General Assembly 10 days ago, saying his country was "on the front line of the war on climate change."
"The desolation is beyond imagination," he told the assembly.
Washington (UPI) Sep 22, 2017
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