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As Puerto Rico Reels After Earthquake, Democrats Demand Trump End 'Illegal' Withholding of $18 Billion in Disaster Funds

"Boricuas deserve so much better than this."

People inspect damage and help to take merchandise out of a local store after a 6.4 earthquake hit just south of the island on January 7, 2020 in Guánica, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Eric Rojas/Getty Images)

As Puerto Rico dealt with the fallout from a series of devastating earthquakes in recent days, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined calls Thursday for the Trump administration to release $18 billion in disaster aid to the island more than two years after the money was appropriated.

The funds were meant to go to the U.S. territory after Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused nearly $150 billion in damage in September 2017. Maria killed nearly 3,000 people and left 1.5 million Puerto Ricans without power, including hundreds whose electricity wasn't restored for nearly a year. On Thursday, about two-thirds of the island once again had no power and hundreds of thousands of people were without running water following the earthquakes, including a 6.4-magnitude earthquake which struck Tuesday,

"We call upon the White House to stop its unlawful withholding of funds from Puerto Rico," Pelosi said at a press conference Thursday. "There are needs that need to be met, there has been a disaster designated, but the ongoing withholding of funds appropriated by Congress to Puerto Rico is illegal."

Pelosi's remarks came amid reporting that a major power plant was severely damaged by Tuesday's earthquake, which followed hundreds of smaller tremors since the New Year. The Costa Sur plant, which provides power to about a quarter of the island, was knocked out of commission and may not be fully operating for a year.

At least one person was killed in the disaster and more than 2,000 people have been displaced and are staying in temporary shelters.

Social media users drew attention to the latest suffering of Puerto Ricans and demanded the funds be released.

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Puerto Rico has had access to just $1.5 billion in disaster aid since Congress approved a $19.9 billion grant after the hurricanes. The Trump administration missed a deadline last September to release another $8 billion.

President Donald Trump refused to make more funds available to Puerto Rico last year, citing the island's history of financial difficulties. After the Senate blocked a disaster aid package for Midwestern states last April because Democrats wanted more money to be included for Puerto Rico, the president lashed out at the territory's government.

"Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas and Florida combined, yet their government can't do anything right, the place is a mess—nothing works," Trump tweeted.

At the time, Trump falsely claimed his administration had already given $91 billion to Puerto Rico for disaster relief, a figure the Office of Management and Budget repeated Thursday.

"Over $90 billion has been forecast to be spent on Puerto Rico recovery relief, which is unprecedented," spokesman Chase Jennings told the Washington Post.

In fact, $91 billion is the amount of money Puerto Rico is projected to need for disaster relief over the next two decades.

While Trump has accused the Puerto Rican government of mismanaging funds and corruption as he's refused to release aid, many of the territory's financial problems are rooted in a decision by the U.S. to phase out tax breaks for companies on the island, which triggered a recession, and a debt crisis made worse by Wall Street banks which stepped in to sell Puerto Rico's debt in exchange for fees.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) told the Post that with calls for the Trump administration to help the island by releasing its remaining disaster aid funds, the burden is on the White House to "show good faith."

"Good faith involves not just responding to this latest disaster, but cleaning up from the previous one as well," he added.

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