Puerto Rico needs ‘unprecedented’ aid, says oversight board

On Tuesday, Puerto Rico's oversight board said the island will need "unprecedented" amounts of federal aid to recover from Hurricane Maria. Photo by Capt. Christopher Merian/Air Force Space Command

Nov. 8 (UPI) — Puerto Rico will need “unprecedented” amounts of federal aid and must undergo the largest public entity restructuring in U.S. history to recover from Hurricane Maria, the executive director of the island’s federal oversight board said Tuesday.

“Before the hurricanes, the board was determined that Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities could achieve balanced budgets, work its way through its debt problems and develop a sustainable economy without federal aid,” Natalie Jeresko, head of the island’s board, told the House Natural Resources committee. “That is simply no longer possible. Without unprecedented levels of help from the United States government, the recovery we were planning for will fail.”

Jeresko said the island will need between $13 billion and $21 billion over the next two years to keep the basic functions of government operating, including paying for policemen, firemen, teachers, healthcare workers and public service employees helping recovery efforts.

Although there have been some improvements since the hurricane, including restocked grocery shelves and fuel distribution, Jeresko said the lack of electricity on the island is exacerbating an already dire situation for people with special health needs. There are people who need to have their medicines refrigerated, and senior and disabled people who are living in shelters or houses without roofs, she said.

Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico had more than $74 billion in debt and a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent. Jeresko said that in order to recover, the island will need greater debt forgiveness from Congress.

“It is very difficult for anyone in Puerto Rico to see the future at this stage. So much depends on you the Congress, the administration and how much funding that will be appropriated for Puerto Rico,” she said. “In the short term, there’s no question that this will be very difficult for creditors. in terms of the future, much depends on your response.”

The total damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has been estimated to be up to $95 billion.

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