Puerto Rico to be given access to $8.2 billion in blocked disaster aid funding: Politico

(Reuters) – Puerto Rico will be allowed access to $8.2 billion in blocked disaster aid funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Politico reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The U.S. territory has undergone hundreds of earthquakes and aftershocks since Dec. 28 that have caused structural damage to thousands of buildings and homes.

The quakes have worsened Puerto Rico’s woes as it continues to recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, which killed about 3,000 people, and goes through a bankruptcy process.

“Now that a full financial monitoring team is assembled and active, we can move forward with confidence that these disaster recovery funds will reach those who need them the most,” the Politico report quoted an unnamed HUD official as saying.

U.S. President Donald Trump suggested in July last year that Puerto Rico could not be trusted to manage federal aid, saying it was “in the hands of incompetent people and very corrupt people.”

Access to the funds after all may come as a relief for Puerto Rico after rating agency Moody’s Investors Service said on Tuesday that recent earthquakes posed a setback for the Caribbean island in terms of its economic recovery and ability to retain residents and businesses.

The development followed a letter http://bit.ly/2NtywlS on Tuesday in which Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and several other Senate Democrats asked the Trump administration to approve full aid to Puerto Rico.

The HUD did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment outside regular working hours.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

No vacancy: Housing crisis dogs Florida Keys months after Irma

Terri Metter, 50, and her Boston Terrier Nikki stand in front of a debris-filled canal in the RV park where she has been living in a FEMA trailer since November 2017, in Marathon, Florida, U.S., June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

By Zachary Fagenson

MARATHON, Fla. (Reuters) – For eight months Terri Metter has made her home in a government trailer parked along a debris-clogged canal in the Florida Keys and she considers herself lucky since Hurricane Irma forced many of her former neighbors to move off the once-idyllic archipelago.

Terri Metter and her Boston Terrier Nikki overlook what's left of destroyed trailers that fill a canal near a trailer park in Marathon, Florida, U.S., June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

Terri Metter and her Boston Terrier Nikki overlook what’s left of destroyed trailers that fill a canal near a trailer park in Marathon, Florida, U.S., June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

Metter has been bunked down in temporary housing supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since November, after the Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 130 miles per hour (209 kph), strafed nearby Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017.

“A few people are finding housing on boats or they’re sleeping on couches, but a lot of people who work here can’t afford to stay and it’s a sad thing,” said the 50-year-old bookkeeper and bartender in Marathon, a city made up of 13 tiny islands about 50 miles east of Key West and 115 miles southwest of Miami.

Though much of mainland Florida escaped major damage, the Keys were devastated. The resort islands, stretching southwest from the tip of the Florida Peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico, are connected by a single, narrow highway that runs along a series of bridges and causeways.

The hurricane destroyed almost 1,200 homes in Monroe County, which includes the Keys and parts of the mainland that are almost entirely in Everglades National Park. That figure excludes trailers, a popular form of housing in the Keys, and homes damaged so severely that owners simply abandoned them.

Overall, 84 people in Florida died as a result of Irma, and the region, including other southeastern states, suffered an estimated $50 billion worth of damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.

As the hurricane approached, Metter evacuated and stayed with family in Michigan, but returned a month later to see the devastation in her neighborhood, where only eight of 50 trailers and homes remained intact. Rotting debris and seaweed filled her home, and she decided rebuilding was the only option.

Others had no choice but to live elsewhere. A lack of affordable, safe housing forced many of those who work in the Keys’ numerous restaurants and hotels to move to the mainland, officials said.

“Folks are living in unlawful spaces that don’t meet code, unsafe spaces, and they have been doing it because they want to be there and it’s the only way they can afford to be there,” said Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition.

Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent expects many who lost their homes or suffered major damage to never come back. In 2016, the county’s population totaled about 79,000, almost all of them residing in the Keys, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I’m estimating between 15 and 25 percent of our population is going to be lost and we lose more and more every day,” he said.

To put a dent in the housing deficit, Monroe County has teamed with private developers and donors on a plan to build homes capable of withstanding 200 mile-per-hour winds that are affordable for hospitality workers. Florida Governor Rick Scott and state lawmakers are also weighing a proposal for 1,300 new housing units for workers in the Keys.

The construction cannot come fast enough as the region braces for what this year’s hurricane season, which began June 1, will bring to the region.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center expects the season to be a near-normal to above-normal season in terms of the number and intensity of storms.

The long recovery from Irma and the previous hurricane season has raised doubts with many, said Neil Curran, 45, a contractor and waiter who lost the 42-foot sailboat where he lived off Key West during last year’s storm.

While Curran is renting a new boat after bouncing around more than a dozen FEMA-funded hotel rooms, he said he knew of at least two dozen friends who have left the islands, and more on the cusp of leaving.

“Over the summer, we’re going to see a pretty big mass exodus,” he said.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; editing by Ben Klayman, Frank McGurty and G Crosse)

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House plans to ask the U.S. Congress on Friday for about $45 billion in additional aid for disaster relief to cover damage from hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida and other disaster damage, a congressional aide said on late Thursday.

The request would be significantly short of what some government officials say is needed.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello on Monday requested $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals devastated by Hurricane Maria. The state of Texas earlier this month submitted a request for $61 billion in federal aid.

Last month, Congress approved $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters and said it planned to seek another round of funding after it reviewed requests from federal agencies and state and U.S. commonwealth governments.

Puerto Rico sought $31.1 billion for housing, followed by $17.8 billion to rebuild and make more resilient the power grid.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said late Thursday at a congressional hearing his staff had been briefed on the White House that would be released on Friday that he called “wholly inadequate” but he did not disclose the precise amount.

He said the White House had also “short-changed” funding for wildfires that have struck the western United States. The October disaster assistance bill included $576.5 million for wildfire-fighting efforts.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Business group pushes for U.S. flood insurance reform as December deadline looms

Business group pushes for U.S. flood insurance reform as December deadline looms

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The latest attempt to overhaul the U.S. federal flood insurance program hit a stumbling block, but a coalition of business and environmental groups renewed their push on Wednesday for lawmakers to enact an overhaul before the program expires on Dec. 8.

The SmarterSafer coalition sent a letter to members of the U.S. House urging passage of the compromise legislation that would extend to 2022 the federal program that has been heavily utilized after vast flooding from hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“This legislative package moves the flood program in the right direction and contains needed reforms that will better protect those in harm’s way, the environment, and taxpayers,” the letter states, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

The hurdle came with the House Rules Committee indefinitely postponed a hearing on the bill that was scheduled for Tuesday night.

“Clearly they’re trying to make sure they’ve got all their ducks in a row and they’ve got all the votes they need,” said Steve Ellis, with the conservative group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is part of a coalition pushing for reform of the program.

Joshua Saks, the legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, said one of the shortcomings of the compromise is that it does not ensure that the money for flood mitigation projects will ever be spent.

“We need an Apollo project of mitigation right now, we need billions right now up front,” Saks said, referring to the project that put a man on the moon.

Two prominent Republican members of the U.S. House announced last week they had struck a deal that would extend the life of the program that covers most of the nation’s flood-prone properties.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas brokered the compromise and said the deal helps policy holders and taxpayers.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill, including $16 billion in forgiveness of some debt in the National Flood Insurance Program, which insures about 5 million homes and businesses.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson. Additional reporting by David Shepardson.)

North American commercial property insurance rates seen rising sharply in 2018

- Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017.

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – North American commercial property insurance rates could rise by as much as 25 percent during 2018 for properties that suffered catastrophe losses this year, according to a report on Monday by insurance brokerage Willis Towers Watson.

The commercial property insurance market, which has been soft during recent years, is now heading toward a correction, largely due to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which together triggered one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in history, Willis Towers Watson said.

Rates for commercial properties that were not damaged, but located in catastrophe-prone areas, may increase between 10 and 20 percent, while the cost of coverage for properties in other locations could increase by up to 5 percent, Willis Towers Watson said.

Insurers around the globe are looking to raise rates after what is likely to have been their most costly quarter on record. American International Group Inc & AIG. said on Friday it would pursue double-digit rate increases and bolster reinsurance, following $3 billion in third-quarter catastrophe losses.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria alone caused as much as $135 billion in insured losses, according to modeling firm AIR Worldwide. Earthquakes in Mexico could cost billions more.

Other insurers pursuing rate increases include the Travelers Companies Inc and Chubb Ltd .

“The marketplace is going to react, and buyers need to be ready,” Willis Towers Watson wrote in the report. Insurers will have a clearer sense of their losses when policy renewals begin next year, the company said.

Auto liability rates may increase between 3 and 8 percent as insurers continue to ratchet up rates because of higher accident rates due to distracted driving and rising costs to fix damaged vehicles, Willis Towers Watson said.

Most buyers of cyber insurance, which covers certain damages if a company is hacked, will face modest increases when they renew, triggered by growth in the sector. “The cleanest risks may still see low single-digit decreases,” the report said.

 

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

 

Lloyd’s of London estimates Maria claims of $900 mln, cuts Harvey, Irma estimates

Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

LONDON (Reuters) – Lloyd’s of London estimated net claims of $900 million for Hurricane Maria, which caused devastation in Puerto Rico last month, the specialist insurance market said on Monday.

Lloyd’s also revised down its net claims estimates for hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the United States in recent weeks, to $3.9 billion from initial estimates of $4.5 billion.

Insurers and reinsurers are counting the costs of the three hurricanes, which together with earthquakes in Mexico and wildfires in California, are adding up to a heavy year for natural catastrophe losses.

Lloyd’s said it had already paid $900 million in claims for the three hurricanes.

“We are experiencing one of the most active hurricane seasons this century,” Jon Hancock, Lloyd’s performance management director said.

“While it is clear that these catastrophes will bear a heavy toll, the claims are spread across the entire Lloyd’s market, which has total net financial resources of 28 billion pounds ($36.92 billion).”

Hancock said that while Lloyd’s was cutting its earlier estimates for Harvey and Irma, “this is a developing situation and there continues to be a high degree of uncertainty around any claims estimate”.

 

 

(Reporting by Carolyn Cohn; editing by Maiya Keidan)

 

U.S. House panel approves $36.5 billion for hurricane, wildfire relief

The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee has approved $36.5 billion in emergency funding for relief and recovery from the recent devastating hurricanes and wildfires, a spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman said late on Tuesday.

The bill includes $7 billion more funding than the White House had sought last week, and included nearly $6 billion more for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) than the administration’s request.

The committee’s bill also includes $576.6 million for wildfire efforts, $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance program, and a provision enabling low-income Puerto Ricans to receive emergency nutrition assistance, said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, the committee chairman.

It was not immediately clear when the bill would move to the floor to be voted on by the entire House.

The United States has been battered by a series of hurricanes in the Caribbean, Texas and Florida and wildfires in California.

President Donald Trump has also asked Congress to approve a $4.9 billion government loan to help Puerto Rico pay some of its bills in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma sink U.S. payrolls in September

FILE PHOTO: Brochures are displayed for job seekers at the Construction Careers Now! hiring event in Denver, Colorado U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employment fell in September for the first time in seven years as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left displaced workers temporarily unemployed and delayed hiring, the latest indication that the storms undercut economic activity in the third quarter.

The Labor Department said on Friday nonfarm payrolls decreased by 33,000 jobs last month amid a record drop in employment in the leisure and hospitality sector.

The decline in payrolls was the first since September 2010. The Department said its analysis suggested that the net effect of Harvey and Irma, which wreaked havoc in Texas and Florida in late August and early September, was to “reduce the estimate of total nonfarm payroll employment for September.”

Economists had forecast payrolls increasing by 90,000 jobs last month. Payrolls are calculated from a survey of employers, which treats any worker who was not paid for any part of the pay period that includes the 12th of the month as unemployed.

Many of the dislocated people will probably return to work. That, together with rebuilding and clean-up is expected to boost job growth in the coming months. Leisure and hospitality payrolls dived 111,000, the most since records started in 1939, after being unchanged in August.

There were also decreases in retail and manufacturing employment last month. Stripping out the effects of the hurricanes, the labor market remains strong. The government revised data for August to show 169,000 jobs created that month instead of the previously reported 156,000.

Harvey and Irma did not have an impact on the unemployment rate, which fell two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.2 percent, the lowest since February 2001. The smaller survey of households from which the jobless rate is derived treats a person as employed regardless of whether they missed work during the reference week and were unpaid as result.

The decrease in the unemployment rate reflected an increase in household employment. It also came despite more people entering the labor force.

The dollar rose against a basket of currencies after the data, while prices for U.S. Treasuries fell. U.S. stock index futures were trading lower.

DISRUPTIONS BOOST WAGES

Underscoring the disruptive impact of the hurricanes, the household survey showed 1.5 million people stayed at home in September because of the bad weather, the most since January 1996. About 2.9 million people worked part-time, the largest number since February 2014.

The length of the average workweek was unchanged at 34.4 hours. With the hurricane-driven temporary unemployment concentrated in low-paying industries like retail and leisure and hospitality, average hourly earnings increased 12 cents or 0.5 percent in September after rising 0.2 percent in August.

That pushed the annual increase in wages to 2.9 percent, the largest gain since December 2016, from 2.7 percent in August. Annual wage growth of at least 3.0 percent is need to raise inflation to the Fed’s 2 percent target, analysts say

The mixed employment report should not change views the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates in December. Fed Chair Janet Yellen cautioned last month that the hurricanes could “substantially” weigh on September job growth, but expected the effects would “unwind relatively quickly.”

The U.S. central bank said last month it expected “labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further.” The Fed left interest rates unchanged in September, but signaled it expected one more hike by the end of the year. It has increased borrowing costs twice this year.

The employment report added to August consumer spending, industrial production, homebuilding and home sales data in suggesting that the hurricanes will dent economic growth in the third quarter.

Economists estimate that the back-to-back storms, including Hurricane Maria which destroyed infrastructure in Puerto Rico last month, could shave at least six-tenths of a percentage point from third-quarter gross domestic product.

Growth estimates for the July-September period are as low as a 1.8 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 3.1 percent rate in the second quarter.

Private payrolls fell by 40,000 jobs, the biggest drop since February 2010. Manufacturing employment slipped by 1,000 jobs pulled down by declines at motor vehicle assembly and chemical plants as well as textile mills.

Retail employment fell by 2,900 jobs as food stores payrolls tumbled 6,900. There were also declines in employment at department stores. Construction payrolls rose 8,000 in September as a 3,900 drop in jobs at homebuilding sites was offset by increases elsewhere.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Trump lifts foreign shipping restrictions for storm-hit Puerto Rico

Trump lifts foreign shipping restrictions for storm-hit Puerto Rico

By Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily lifted restrictions on foreign shipping on Thursday to help get fuel and supplies to Puerto Rico as the U.S. territory reels from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Trump, at the request of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, “has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a Twitter post.

The waiver of the act, which limits shipping between U.S. ports to U.S. owned-and-operated vessels, was signed by acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and would be in force for 10 days, the DHS said in a statement. It would cover all products being shipped to Puerto Rico, the department said.

Puerto Rico’s government had sought a waiver to ensure as many supplies as possible, including badly needed fuel, reach the island of 3.4 million people quickly.

The waiver aimed to “ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of these devastating storms,” Duke said, referring not just to Maria but to Hurricane Irma, which grazed Puerto Rico earlier this month.

Rossello retweeted Sanders’ announcement with a “Thank you @POTUS” – referring to Trump’s official Twitter handle.

Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, knocking out power to the entire island, causing widespread flooding and major damage to homes and infrastructure.

The U.S. government has periodically lifted the Jones Act for a temporary period following violent storms, including after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit Texas and Florida in late August and earlier this month.

Even as federal emergency management authorities and the U.S. military have stepped up relief efforts in Puerto Rico, many residents have voiced exasperation at the prolonged lack of electricity, reliable supplies of drinking water and other essentials.

Rossello has strongly praised Trump’s response, defending the Republican administration against complaints of being slow to act. Critics have said the island is not getting the same response from the federal government as it would if it were a U.S. state, even though its residents are U.S. citizens.

“The president has been very diligent, he has been essentially talking to us every day,” the governor said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.

Outlining some of the problems facing the island, Rossello said, “Really our biggest challenge has been the logistical assets to try to get some of the food and some of the water to different areas of Puerto Rico.”

He said the territory was working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We need truck drivers,” he said, adding he had asked the Department of Defense to send troops to help with transportation.

“The food is here, the water is here. We welcome more help. But critically, what we need is equipment,” and people, either national or state troops, Rossello said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Bill Trott)