SALINAS, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico two years ago, it smashed through the National Guard training base here, sending the plaques that Maj. Gen. José J. Reyes gathered over his U.S. Army career into the howl of an unforgiving wind.
The base, known as Camp Santiago, emerged from the storm much like the rest of the island: damaged, shocked and determined to recover against dim economic odds.
So when Reyes helped secure $331.5 million for the base from the Pentagon’s treasured construction budget, officials thought Maria’s clouds had come with a silver lining.
The money would not only rebuild Camp Santiago. Now, for the first time, an island that regularly sends its men and women to war for the United States would get a modern, hurricane-proof training ground for its guard.
Or so Puerto Rico thought.
Early this month, the Pentagon announced that 127 military construction projects approved by Congress would be defunded under emergency authorities to free up $3.6 billion for President Donald Trump’s border barrier on the southern border with Mexico. Among the shelved construction projects: plans to rebuild Camp Santiago.
For Reyes, the adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, the news was a crushing disappointment. He said the National Guard leadership in Washington assured him that Congress would take up the projects again. Reyes is hopeful but uncertain.
“There’s no guarantee in life,” he said, leavening his discouragement with a dash of fatalism. “Eventually we will die. That’s the only guarantee in life.”
Hurricane Maria damaged or ruined 60 percent of the buildings at Camp Santiago. Workers have already razed the headquarters building and mess halls that the storm mangled beyond repair. Down the road, the maintenance garage doors don’t close because the wind twisted them out of shape. The roof on one maintenance bay still looks like a loosely shuffled deck of cards. Some guardsmen preparing to go to war are training elsewhere because the storm halved the base’s capacity. One engineering battalion, deploying to Afghanistan next year, trained in North Dakota.
Officially, the Trump administration says the 127 projects the Pentagon has defunded for the wall have been “deferred” rather than canceled. For the projects to proceed, however, Congress must once again appropriate funding for them, a process the administration calls “backfilling.”
The Republican-led Senate has agreed to backfill the $3.6 billion worth of projects in its version of the annual defense policy bill. But Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, have refused to re-appropriate money for projects that Congress has already funded.
Puerto Rico has more projects on the list than any other U.S. territory or state. Of the $3.6 billion worth of defunded construction projects the Pentagon unveiled this month, $402.6 million, or nearly 12 percent of the funds, had been destined for Puerto Rico. The list includes projects in 23 states, three U.S. territories and 20 countries, and cuts across Republican and Democratic districts.
In addition to taking money from Camp Santiago, the Pentagon also pulled funding from hurricane reconstruction projects for the Puerto Rico National Guard elsewhere on the island and from a project to replace a school for military and civilian children at a Coast Guard base here. Reyes said that one of the defunded projects is a hurricane-proof hangar for helicopters, which would guarantee the guard has working aircraft to conduct search-and-rescue missions after future storms.
Beyond opposing the wall, Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern about setting a precedent in which a president can disregard Congress’s constitutionally mandated power of the purse to take funds unilaterally and then force lawmakers to appropriate more money for projects they already funded.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said last week that the border barriers the Pentagon is bankrolling have nothing to do with supporting troops during a national emergency — as the law requires for the Pentagon to redirect funding. He said the moves set a disturbing precedent.
“I believe you’ve been given an illegal order,” King told Trump’s nominee to become the next secretary of the Army at his confirmation hearing. “I think what’s being done here is a gross violation of the Constitution – and the fundamental principles of the Constitution, which is a separation of powers, and the bestowing of the appropriation and spending power on the Congress.”
The Pentagon has said it is confident its action is appropriate and legal. Several states and nongovernmental organizations are still challenging the move in courts, which are expected to weigh in later this year. The administration is relying on an obscure statute in federal law, known as Section 2808, which allows the defense secretary, in the event of a national emergency requiring the use of the armed forces, to take money from the Pentagon construction budget without sign-off from Congress for projects that support those troops.
Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department considers the projects in Puerto Rico important and will continue to work with Congress to support them in a bipartisan fashion. He said if Congress agrees to backfill the funding, there would be little to no effect on the timeline of the initiatives in question.
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The situation traces back to a dispute between Trump and Congress late last year over how much money the federal government would provide for barriers on the southern border. The standoff caused the longest-ever U.S. government shutdown before Trump, in February, declared a national emergency, vowing to skirt Congress and tap Pentagon funds for the wall.
Much of the money will come from planned construction projects that the Pentagon has frozen, including nine new or renovated schools for military children, a day-care center and hurricane recovery efforts. Some of the defunded projects were approved to address safety hazards at military sites. On the campaign trail, Trump promised Mexico would pay for the wall.
In choosing which construction projects to defund, the Defense Department decided not to take money from military housing, after the department faced an outcry over poor conditions at residences for U.S. service members, including instances of black mold, vermin and lead paint.
As a result, all the projects at Camp Santiago have been put on ice except the $112 million construction of new barracks. Once the barracks are built, however, guardsmen staying there won’t have proper dining facilities. Many of the old mess halls were ruined, and their replacements are among the defunded projects that total $219.5 million on base.
For some Puerto Ricans, it’s the latest in a series of slights by the Trump administration against the island’s roughly 3.1 million U.S. citizens.
“Camp Santiago, located in Salinas, is known to be one of the most important training facilities for our soldiers,” Karilyn Bonilla Colón, the mayor of Salinas, where the base is located, said in a statement. “Cutting back its funds, knowing it is still suffering from the devastation brought by Hurricane Maria, is completely unjustifiable.”
Since facing criticism for his response to Hurricane Maria, Trump has suggested that the island is a burden. He alleged that Democrats inflated the hurricane’s death toll “in order to make me look as bad as possible.” Recently, he also suggested trading the U.S. territory for Greenland.
“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end? Congress approved 92 Billion Dollars for Puerto Rico last year, an all time record of its kind for ‘anywhere,’ ” Trump tweeted in August ahead of Hurricane Dorian.
The tweet was incorrect. Roughly $43 billion in federal disaster aid has been allocated to Puerto Rico, of which about $14 billion has been disbursed, according to FEMA data. Hurricane Dorian didn’t hit Puerto Rico but veered northward to strike the Bahamas.
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Named for Héctor Santiago-Colón, a native of nearby Salinas who died in the Vietnam War after absorbing the impact of a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, Camp Santiago is a nearly 13,000-acre tropical expanse tucked between the mountains in southern Puerto Rico.
Strip away the Humvees and athletic fields, and the base could be an Argentine estancia, home to gauchos instead of guardsmen. Wild horses graze in the shade between old barracks that resemble low-slung stables. White fencing keeps them out of the installations.
Hurricane Maria turned out to be the most devastating natural disaster to hit the island in modern history, knocking out the power grid, buckling infrastructure and ultimately leaving an estimated 2,975 people dead after many went without electricity for months. The natural disaster came as the island reeled from the biggest ever bankruptcy in the municipal bond market – an economic crisis, compounded by state-imposed austerity measures, compounded by the storm.
With the power out, Reyes took his elderly father, reliant on medical equipment, to a hospital with a generator before sprinting into action to command the response. The general set about organizing the island’s National Guard, giving soldiers 48 hours to report for duty after securing their own homes.
The conditions surprised and challenged the guard. Communications were down across the island. Hundreds of Puerto Rico’s guardsmen were in the U.S. Virgin Islands, deployed to help the neighboring territory recover from Hurricane Irma, which blew through two weeks earlier.
Other members of Puerto Rico’s guard were unreachable. Some were on the U.S. mainland working and unable to get back. Others were also first responders – policemen, firefighters, medical workers — and had to attend to the emergencies in their communities.
Less than half of the roughly 8,500-strong Puerto Rico National Guard was on duty nine days after the hurricane. Those who mobilized were paired with thousands of other service members from 33 states, who flowed in to help clear roads and distribute water and food. All of them answered to Reyes.
“It was a tremendous operation, and the people of Puerto Rico are very grateful for it,” he said. “The men and women of the Puerto Rico National Guard — I will always be grateful to them. Many of them were fulfilling that mission when personally they lost their own homes and they lost relatives.”
Days into the hurricane response, with the power out across the island, Reyes’s father died.
“I took one day to bury him and then was back to work,” Reyes said. “He was 101 years old, but I had a mission, and I know deep in my heart … that was what my dad would have told me to do. Do what you have to do to support the people of Puerto Rico.”
Today at Camp Santiago, the majestic red oak trees that line the streets are amputated, their limbs slashed off in the storm. At the base’s central Warriors Plaza — dedicated to the more than 17,500 Puerto Rico guardsmen who have deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and other operations in the global war on terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001 — two of the three buildings are gone, razed. Where Reyes’s office once stood, new grass peeks up through the dirt.
The construction projects were supposed to restore Camp Santiago’s capacity to house a full battalion and expand the base to house more than one. That way guardsmen deploying to war can train together as a unit.
For officials on base, the reconstruction is also a matter of pride.
“When we go out, when we have been mobilized, we have been in war with other National Guardsmen from other states,” said Col. Carlos Caez-Sierra, the head of construction and facilities. “We fight the same wars. We have the same missions. When you go to train in their states, their facilities are state of the art.”
Caez-Sierra expressed confidence that Washington would ultimately come through with the funds for Camp Santiago.
“We have our hopes that it is going to be approved in the next fiscal year,” he said. “We are very optimistic that the president is going to take into consideration the service that we have provided to the nation.”
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The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt in Washington contributed to his report.