December 19, 2017 / 7:52 PM / a year ago

Trump aides visit Puerto Rico as Congress weighs disaster package

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet secretaries visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday to assess its needs after Hurricane Maria’s devastation as U.S. lawmakers weighed a massive aid package to help the island and other areas of the country hit by natural disasters.

House of Representatives Republican leaders have unveiled an $81 billion aid package to deal with hurricanes and wildfires, the largest ever natural disaster package. The measure would include aid, not only for Puerto Rico, but also for states like Texas and Florida that were also hit by hurricanes and California, which is struggling to contain massive wildfires.

As Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson flew into San Juan, scores of houses with blue tarps covering damaged roofs were visible.

While the city hummed with activity, in more remote parts of the island residents remain without power and recovery is slow.

About 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s power grid – as measured by its peak use – is operating, the government has said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is running the power restoration project, has projected that 95 percent of the grid will have power by the end of February, but it will take until the end of May for the rest of the island to be hooked back up.

Even before Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, the island was contending with $72 billion in debt. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has asked the federal government for a total of $94.4 billion in aid, including $31.1 billion for housing and $17.8 billion to rebuild its ruined power grid.

Daniel Kaniewski, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who was traveling with Nielsen and Carson, said he had not seen the details of the House aid package. But he added: “We do need the funding eventually - we don’t need it tomorrow. We need it soon.”

Puerto Rico’s government has said 64 people died because of the hurricane, but after multiple media estimates of dramatically higher figures, Rossello on Monday ordered an official review of the death toll. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Caren Bohan and Phil Berlowitz)

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