The response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has its fair share of horror stories to this point. Six months since the storm devastated the island territory, there are still plenty of issues and needs for those living there. As pointed out in the LA Times, nearly 100,000 are still without power despite efforts restoring power to 93% of customers. This would is good news, but it has become tarnished by the controversial response by FEMA and the Trump administration in the wake of the powerful storm.
Now according to a new report by the Associated Press, a letter released by Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democratic member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, outlines the panic that spread in the aftermath and how FEMA remained silent to requests from Puerto Rican officials:
Emails and text messages made public Tuesday in a letter sent by the top Democrat on the House oversight committee describe frantic efforts by officials at Walmart and the Puerto Rican government to get fuel for generators to prevent food from going bad.
From the Federal Emergency Management Agency came only silence.
Within a three-hour time span, Walmart officials were able to connect, through email and text messages, with a congressman’s office and local Puerto Rican government officials. They passed on their urgent request for help, just two days after the hurricane made landfall.
Meanwhile, the letter states, FEMA remained unresponsive for days.
The letter reportedly says that local stores in Puerto Rico lost “tens of thousands of dollars in perishable food” according to Splinter and the Walmart stores mentioned were hours away from losing power to the stores they had managed to get running to aid victims of the storm. As the AP report points out, none of this prompted a swift response from FEMA officials despite swift requests being made by government officials:
Roughly an hour after that first email, Gutierrez’s office forwarded the email to a Puerto Rican government official. And 12 minutes later, the Puerto Rican government official responded: “FYI I’m sitting with FEMA rep right now so we are taking care of this.”
Walmart officials sent over a priority list of a dozen of their top stores — they operated 46 on the island — needing fuel to keep food from spoiling, in addition to their distribution center and home office.
“Fuel at this point is becoming a key concern as we are less than 24 hours left in maintaining power in most facilities,” the Walmart official wrote.
The message was forwarded by the Puerto Rican government official to a FEMA official 26 minutes later. But by Sunday, two days after initially reaching out, there was still no response from FEMA. The Puerto Rican government official texted Walmart that FEMA had not responded to numerous requests.
FEMA responded to the letter and reports that followed by pledging to continue working with the committee and that they are aware of the letter’s existence:
“The protection of life and safety is our first priority in any response, including working closely with the government of Puerto Rico to support the fueling mission for critical infrastructure” such as hospitals and communications centers, Llargues said.
Llargues said that FEMA has distributed more than 13 million gallons of fuel to date. He did not provide any timeline nor did he confirm the details in the letter.
The disaster response in Puerto Rico followed a string of disasters elsewhere in the United States, adding to the delay already facing FEMA due to Puerto Rico’s damaged infrastructure. But the situation also quickly became politicized by the president and critics of its handling of the situation.
None of this even begins to scratch the surface of the issues that arose as the weeks passed following the hurricane, including a controversy over a company hired to restore power to the island and the president’s own visit. With the island still reeling in some places, learning that FEMA was largely silent isn’t a comfort.