National Guard unit spaces at Camp Santiago in southern Puerto Rico. The installation was one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Jake Joy/The Defense Logistics Agency)

September 19

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 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.”

A service member delivers food and water to Hurricane Maria survivors in Morovis, Puerto Rico. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Maj. Gen. José Reyes helps offload water in Barranquitas after Hurricane Maria. (Maj. Patrick Cordova/National Guard Bureau)

The defunding of the Puerto Rico project comes as the Trump administration considers diverting billions more in military funding to pay for barrier construction next year. The president has pledged to complete nearly 500 miles of new barrier by the 2020 election, a goal that will require a total of $18.4 billion in funding through next year.

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’s 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.