In Reversal, FEMA Says It Won't End Puerto Rico Food And Water Distribution Wednesday

Jan 31, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 12:04 pm

Updated 12:46 p.m. ET

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that the agency's plan to end its distribution of emergency food and water in Puerto Rico and turn that responsibility over to the Puerto Rican government would not take effect on Jan. 31.

"Provision of those commodities will continue," spokesman William Booher said. A different spokesperson, Delyris Aquino-Santiago, had earlier told NPR that it would "officially shut off" its food and water mission on the island on Jan. 31 and hand its remaining food and water supplies over to the Puerto Rican government to finish distributing. But on Wednesday, Booher said that date "was mistakenly provided."

The agency has been working on that transition but has not finalized it, he said, adding that in the meantime, FEMA will continue providing food and water to communities on the island that need them.

The turnabout came after politicians from both political parties reacted angrily to news of FEMA's plan and after the Puerto Rican government released a statement saying it had not been informed of the impending change. On Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties had called on the agency to reverse its decision.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said he was "absolutely shocked" by FEMA's decision. "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."

His concerns were echoed by Democrats and Republicans alike, including Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

"There are still a lot of people that wonder why we are giving foreign aid to Puerto Rico," Rubio told USA Today. "You have to remind them, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its residents are U.S. citizens."

But perhaps the most surprising reaction came from the government of Puerto Rico itself. In a statement, the island's public security secretary, Hector Pesquera, said that while he was aware that FEMA would eventually transfer responsibility for distributing food and water supplies over to the island's government, "this has not happened yet and we were not informed that supplies would stop arriving."

His statement contradicted information that FEMA sent NPR in an email last week. An agency spokeswoman wrote that "FEMA will continue to provide commodities to the State [Puerto Rico] until January 31st."

But as public concerns mounted over FEMA's plans following NPR's report, the agency released a new statement. While reiterating its belief that emergency food and water supplies were no longer needed on the island, it said that FEMA would "continue to support the Government of Puerto Rico to meet the needs they identify."

Spokesman Booher said one thing that had not changed was FEMA's plan to end the shipment of new food and water supplies to Puerto Rico. He said the agency is confident it has enough of a stockpile there already to meet the need that remains. If supplies run out, he said FEMA would reconsider purchasing more. He did not say when the agency would finalize its plan to hand the remaining supplies over to the Puerto Rican government.

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There is a new development in Puerto Rico's months-long recovery from Hurricane Maria. On Monday, NPR reported that FEMA plans to end distribution of food and water for Puerto Rico. The agency told us that starting January 31 - that's today - they would hand that effort off to Puerto Rico's government. The timetable came as news to the government of Puerto Rico and to lawmakers in Congress. So now FEMA says its announcement was premature. The agency says its distribution efforts on the island will continue. NPR's Adrian Florido is with us from San Juan. Hey.


MCEVERS: So explain what's happening here.

FLORIDO: Right. So when I communicated with FEMA last week, the agency was very clear about what its plans were, and that is that, one, it was, as of today, no longer shipping new food and water to Puerto Rico and, two, that it was also handing the food and water that it still has on the island over to the Puerto Rican government so that the Puerto Rican government could finish distributing it. So then our story comes out. It gets the attention of some members of Congress. And today, FEMA says, oops, we never should have told you we were ending our distributions because those plans haven't been finalized yet, and that date wasn't quite right. So it says that for now, its distribution of food and water on the island is going to continue.

MCEVERS: Well, until when? I mean, does it have a date? Does it have a firm date for when it will stop delivering aid?

FLORIDO: Right. So I just want to be clear about sort of the delivery of aid. The shipment of new food and water to Puerto Rico has already ended, and that's not going to resume, according to the agency - what the agency told me. The agency thinks there's no longer very much need for it because grocery stores are reopening and that sort of thing. So there's some normalcy returning to parts of the island.


FLORIDO: What the agency is still working on is this plan to hand the rest of its supplies over to the Puerto Rican government so that FEMA can move on to do other longer term recovery - right - not emergency stuff. And so the agency said it's still working on this plan with the Puerto Rican government, on this transition, to decide exactly when that's going to happen. But there's no firm date yet.

MCEVERS: What is Puerto Rico's government saying about all this?

FLORIDO: So yesterday after our story, the island's public security secretary, who has a big role in the recovery efforts here, said that he had not been told in this timetable and said that it was much too soon for the Puerto Rican government to be responsible for handing out food aid. His office issued a new statement today saying they'd gotten in touch with FEMA and that everyone agreed that FEMA should continue distributing food and water while the need still persists.

MCEVERS: I mean, what does all of this tell us about the bigger state of just relief in Puerto Rico since this hurricane?

FLORIDO: Yeah. I mean, so, Kelly, I mean, you know, like, the disaster relief in Puerto Rico is complicated. Why? Because, you know, you've got an island that's had no electricity for months. You've got some places with no running water. Not all the roads are passable. And then you've got all of these agencies - federal and Puerto Rican and municipal and nonprofits - and 78 mayors, and they're vying for limited resources while facing pressure from their constituencies to get the lights back on.


FLORIDO: So there's just a lot of pressure all around. And so because of this, there's, like, not often very good communication between all of these players. And, frankly, it's just hard to get everyone operating out of the same playbook, and that's something that we've seen time after time in the four months since the storm.

MCEVERS: NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan, Puerto Rico, thank you so much.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.