U.S. House to vote on $36.5 billion disaster relief package

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The U.S. House of Representatives is expected on Thursday to approve $36.5 billion in emergency relief for hurricane-hit areas such as Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as California, struck by devastating wildfires.

Included in the bill is $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund. Of that, $4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure that the cash-strapped U.S. territory of Puerto Rico can keep government programs operating beyond Oct. 31.

Other funds in the legislation include $576.5 million to be directed to the federal government's wildfire control efforts. Some $16 billion would go to the National Flood Insurance Program to help it cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.

Once passed by the Republican-led House, the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is expected to take up the relief package later this month after it returns from a week-long recess.

Leaders of both major parties have applauded the bill.

"These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, said in a statement.

Frelinghuysen added that "more assistance will be required in the near future" and said his committee would be monitoring the crises as they unfold.

Democratic Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, said the relief package was "just the start" of federal aid to Puerto Rico, where large portions of the island remain without electricity or running water three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

"Much more needs to be done, but, for now the bill includes critical measures that the island needs in the short term to respond to this once-in-a-generation humanitarian crisis," Velázquez said in a statement.

Puerto Rico is burdened with nearly $72 billion in pre-hurricane debt that is being overseen by a federally created oversight board.

Velázquez said the funds earmarked for loans to local governments would assist Puerto Rico's "liquidity crisis" and that steps must be taken to ensure that creditors are unable to access funds meant for disaster relief.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)