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Why states took so long to dispatch disaster aid to Puerto Rico

Christopher Flavelle and Jonathan Levin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Weather News

New York State responded to Puerto Rico's first request on the day it was made. The next day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo flew to Puerto Rico with more than 34,000 bottles of water, 9,600 ready-to-eat meals, 3,000 canned goods, 500 flashlights, 1,400 cots and 10 generators, as well as New York Power Authority engineers, translators and drone pilots.

"New York has the largest population of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico," Cuomo told CNN. "So it's very personal here in New York."

The slow pace of state aid may also reflect something else: Puerto Rico's fiscal straits, and its ability to pay states back for their help.

Under the rules that govern EMAC, the state or territory that receives help is required to pay for that assistance, then seek reimbursement from FEMA for a portion of those costs. In general, FEMA covers just 75 percent of assistance when a disaster is declared.

But Puerto Rico is carrying $74 billion in debt, and declared bankruptcy in May. That may have been a factor for some states deciding whether to send assistance, according to Sprayberry, the head of the emergency managers association.

Sprayberry is also the emergency director for North Carolina. He said financial considerations didn't affect his state's decisions. "Our belief was that in the end, it would be worked out."

The aid isn't cheap. On Sept. 29, Massachusetts agreed to send a six-person National Guard team to Puerto Rico for as much as 30 days, to "support satellite-based data and mobile communications." The bill for that deployment: $218,110 -- about $1,200 per person per day.

Craig Fugate, who ran Florida's emergency management department and then served as President Barack Obama's FEMA administrator, said it makes sense that states would worry about Puerto Rico's ability to repay them.

"All of this assistance requires a cash match," Fugate said. "The commonwealth is broke."

President Donald Trump agreed to have the federal government pay 100 percent of recovery costs for six months.

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