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Devastated by hurricanes, Puerto Rico again looks to Washington for help

President Donald Trump is planning to visit Puerto Rico, which he says was "absolutely obliterated" by Hurricane Maria, and the administration and Congress are making plans to assemble an aid package for the island.

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Deirdre Walsh
Ted Barrett (CNN)

President Donald Trump is planning to visit Puerto Rico, which he says was "absolutely obliterated" by Hurricane Maria, and the administration and Congress are making plans to assemble an aid package for the island.

A White House official told CNN that the island may not be prepared for a presidential visit quite yet.

"He is committed to going, but date is still unclear," the official said. "As you note, there are significant infrastructure concerns."

The President spoke with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Thursday, and there are growing concerns that the process of restoring power to the island could take months.

The presidential attention could offset concerns that the US territory, which has no voting representation in Congress, might not get the same attention or financial relief as some states, like Florida and Texas, that were also recently struck by hurricanes.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican already focused on securing help for his home state, has also made a point to press for money for Puerto Rico. In a series of tweets this week he noted he was working with Rossello and the territory's lone representative in Congress, Republican Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon.

"Spoke to @WhiteHouse yesterday. @Potus coming to #PuertoRico very soon. You will NOT be forgotten. We will rebuild better than ever!" he tweeted.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a Hurricane Harvey cleanup event in Texas that he was still waiting for an official request from the Trump administration on what kind of disaster aid package it would like Congress to approve for victims in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

A senior House GOP leadership aide told CNN on Friday that the spending panel has not received any specific requests yet, and federal agencies are still assessing the needs.

After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Federal Emergency Management Agency burned through disaster money quickly and Congress approved $15 billion more. Recently the pace of FEMA's spending has slowed, but aides expect to get additional requests for money. Ryan said Congress is expected to vote on two bills with more money in October.

On top of dealing with back-to-back blows from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico is still struggling to stabilize from its debt crisis. Last spring Congress negotiated a deal with the Obama Treasury Department to help stabilize the situation, but Ryan stipulated that no taxpayer money would be used to bail out the government there, and there has been little evidence that Capitol Hill will weigh in again to prop up the financial system.

But in terms of providing disaster aid, there is bipartisan support to swiftly deliver help.

Rubio and Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wrote a letter to Trump on Wednesday urging for specific assistance for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

"It is important that the federal government stands ready to assist in the difficult days after Hurricane Maria passes, when hope must be available to combat despair," they wrote.

An aide to Rubio told CNN on Friday that it's too early to know what the territory's disaster relief needs will be, and the funding conversation will begin after the damage is fully assessed. The aide said Puerto Rico is expected to need a lot of money.

In a separate letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the GOP and Democratic senators jointly wrote: "As the National Center for Disaster Fraud continues its important work with the U.S. attorneys' offices and other federal, state, and local agencies related to Hurricane Irma, we respectfully urge you to expand the scope of the task force in Puerto Rico to account for any illegal activity related to Hurricane Maria."

Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez sent a letter Friday to Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pressing them to organize a bipartisan delegation to visit the island.

"It was a powerful direct hit that struck Puerto Rico when it was already down because of the economic situation, financial crisis, limited autonomy because of the federal takeover, and a barely adequate public health, power, and public services infrastructure," Gutierrez wrote. "What little Puerto Rico had before Maria was literally blown away and in order to understand the scope of the damage and the magnitude of the recovery, Members of Congress need to see it with their own eyes."

Signaling the importance politically of the ties of Florida to those living on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham sent letters earlier this week to the state's entire congressional delegation urging them to secure assistance.

"Just as we helped our neighbors in Florida, we must now stand with our neighbors in Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, who just days after enduring Hurricane Irma, have been hit by Hurricane Maria, another devastating storm," Graham wrote.

In her letters, Graham cited how many Puerto Ricans reside in the members' districts, indicating that more than 11,000 live in GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz's district and as many as 186,000 are in Democratic Rep. Darren Soto's district. Soto is the first Floridian of Puerto Rico descent to serve in Congress.

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