In a reversal that should tell you everything you need to know about the way the federal government has responded to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, FEMA now says that it won’t cut off food and water funding to the island, which is still suffering the effects of Hurricane Maria.
As the New York Times reports, FEMA now claims that it never intended to end the aid and that it has no plans to at this time. Instead, the Jan. 31 cutoff date was “mistakenly publicized by the agency,” according to the newspaper. FEMA spokesman William Booher told the Times that Wednesday was actually an internal planning date for the agency to assess whether Puerto Rico still needed assistance.
“This aid is not stopping,” Mr. Booher said in an interview. “There was no, and is no, current plan to stop providing these commodities, as long as there continues to be an identified need for them.”
It’s an interesting turn of events, given the nationwide backlash to the news. The cessation of funding was first reported by NPR, which had FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico go so far as to explain why the stopping of food and water supplies would help the Puerto Rican economy.
Despite this, Booher denies that FEMA is backtracking, claiming that if the agency had actually planned to do what its people explicitly said they were going to do, it would have informed the Puerto Rican government. Government officials on the island say that they were blindsided by the earlier announcement to cut off food and water supplies.
Wednesday will mark the last day Puerto Ricans will receive food and water aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As NPR reports, FEMA will, in its own words, “officially shut off” the aid on Jan. 31.
NPR says that the decision signals that FEMA believes the immediate humanitarian emergency has ended.
Until this point, the agency has provided Puerto Rico with more than 30 million gallons of potable water and about 60 million meals in the four months since the devastation wrought by two back-to-back hurricanes. FEMA says that its remaining food and water supplies will be handed over to the Puerto Rican government for distribution.
“The reality is that we just need to look around. Supermarkets are open, and things are going back to normal,” Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico, told NPR.
But according to multiple media outlets, many islanders still lack basic necessities. ThinkProgress reports that 1 million Puerto Ricans still lack power, and hundreds of thousands still don’t have access to clean water. FEMA, in deciding to close off its food and water aid, said that only 1 percent of the island still needed that sort of assistance—a small-enough number that local governments and nonprofit groups could shoulder the work.
But that 1 percent can be tightly concentrated in certain areas. As Morovis Mayor Carmen Maldonado told NPR, a third of her municipality’s 30,000 residents are still receiving FEMA’s food and water rations. Further, even if supermarkets are operational, the island’s lack of power still poses a major problem for Puerto Ricans.
As Maldonado explains, 80 percent of Morovis still lacks electricity. Whatever money spent on food is money that can’t be spent on fuel.
“In municipalities like this one, where families are going out to work just to buy gas to run a generator, it becomes very hard,” she said.
BuzzFeed reports that as of Monday, a third of the island was still without power. Some Puerto Ricans told BuzzFeed that they hope President Donald Trump will address some of these issues during his first State of the Union, though they’re aware it’s not likely.