WASHINGTON — Four months after Puerto Rico was devastated by a pair of hurricanes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will stop distributing food and water on the island beginning Wednesday, angering some who say Puerto Rico is far from recovered and in desperate need of more federal help, not less.
FEMA said it will turn over all remaining supplies on the island to the Puerto Rican government and nonprofits for allocation, part of a transition from emergency response to recovery. The agency said that grocery stores and other businesses that sell supplies are now open and sufficiently stocked. Banks, ATMs and gas stations are also functional, agency officials said.
The announcement angered many who said they believe FEMA has not provided a sufficient response to an island where about one-third of residents still lack power and, in rural areas, have difficulty obtaining clean water and food.
The government of Puerto Rico said it was not forewarned about the change.
“We were not informed that supplies would stop arriving, nor did the Government of Puerto Rico agree with this action,” Hector Pesquera, state coordinating officer for the Puerto Rican government, said in a statement.
He added that discussions about a transition period have not been finalized.
Puerto Rico was devastated when Hurricane Maria struck in September, just a couple of weeks after it was hit by Hurricane Irma. Officials condemned the Trump administration for what they called a slow and inadequate aid response in the immediate aftermath, and President Donald Trump drew widespread condemnation when he tweeted that the administration could not keep FEMA employees and first responders on the U.S. territory “forever.”
FEMA said it will continue to support municipalities that have needs and nonprofits “who are working with households in rural, outlying areas to address ongoing disaster-related needs as power and water is gradually restored.”
Luis Vega Ramos, a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, said many rural communities still lack basic necessities.
“Electricity is still needed so they can get water, because the power is needed to raise the supply of water. Electricity is still needed for the refrigeration of food, for the refrigeration of medicines,” he said.
“You’re still in desperate need in of humanitarian aid. And not to see this from FEMA, it is at best an act of neglect, and at worst it comes creepingly close to criminal negligence,” he said.
Vega Ramos worries that the Puerto Rican government will not be able to adequately fund aid distribution because a billion-dollar emergency loan approved by Congress to help the island with hurricane recovery has been temporarily withheld by FEMA and the Treasury Department. Agency officials argue that the island, which declared a form of bankruptcy last year, is not as cash-strapped as it cautioned it would be after the storms.
Other Puerto Rican officials said they have not received promised reimbursements from the federal government, making it difficult for municipalities to fund schools and medical facilities and to provide basic services such as trash pickup.
FEMA said there are 3,000 agency employees on the island, and it “will continue to support the Government of Puerto Rico to meet the needs they identify.”
A spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency could not be reached for comment.
FEMA said it has distributed more than $1.6 billion in food and $361 million in water in Puerto Rico. More than 46 million liters of water, 2 million ready-to-eat meals and 2 million snack packs are on the island and ready for distribution, if needed, the agency said. They are housed at nine regional staging areas that remain open for mayors to obtain supplies.
FEMA believes those supplies should fulfill the need, given that the commercial food and water supply chain “is re-established and private suppliers are sufficiently available that FEMA provided commodities are no longer needed for emergency operations.”
If the FEMA emergency supplies run out, officials will re-evaluate, the agency said.
There is concern that the economy isn’t nearly as recovered as FEMA says it is. Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto, the mayor of San Juan, said that she is still waiting for millions of dollars in federal reimbursements and that the spotty electrical grid is it difficult to run businesses and for people to work.
“It’s amazing that they say they want to help the economy, but what are people going to use to buy food? Bitcoin?” she said. “If the electricity isn’t stable enough, it means that job stability isn’t stable enough.”
Cruz said FEMA started backing out of San Juan in December because things improved in the capital city. Rural areas, however, are a different story. Cruz said she sent powdered milk and water that were privately donated and no longer needed in San Juan to a school in the town of Morovis that still lacks electricity.
Cruz praised FEMA’s diesel program, which she said provided much-needed fuel for generators, but said pulling emergency food and water aid is “really appalling.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, spoke about the situation on the Senate floor Tuesday, urging the administration to continue aid to the island.
“Almost a third of them, still, who do not have electricity,” Nelson said. “It’s unconscionable and it’s a travesty. I urge the administration to reverse this disastrous decision immediately and to continue providing the people of Puerto Rico with the help that they need as they are trying to recover from two disastrous hurricanes.”
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