The federal government denied on Thursday afternoon that thousands of shipping containers filled with food, water, and medicine reportedly stuck in Puerto Rico port for days reflect badly on its management of the crisis after Hurricane Maria.
A representative of the shipping company Crowley, which manages the port, told CNN that 10,000 shipping containers in San Juan were unable to be distributed. The containers are "full of emergency supplies, relief cargo," said Crowley's vice president in Puerto Rico, Jose Ayala.
"All kinds of goods: commercial materials, construction materials as well, medicines... food, there's a lot of food in these containers," said Ayala on Wednesday.
Impediments like damaged roads and trucks, no fuel, and no drivers has left the aid supplies waiting.
The federal government is trying to dissociate itself from the containers stuck at the port, and is instead focusing on other parts of its relief work in Puerto Rico.
Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert seemed to question the existence of the containers, calling it "loop footage" during Thursday afternoon's White House press briefing.
"What you saw today was some reporting and some loop footage of some trucks sitting on ports and docks," said Bossert.
"Why is it that there are 10,000 containers waiting at the port of San Juan?" asked a reporter during the briefing.
"To my point earlier, we're getting a lot of supplies through, but just perhaps a misreporting that misunderstands that fact," replied Bossert.
Alex de la Campa, FEMA's director of Caribbean, said in a press call that there were not enough drivers, trucks, or diesel for distribution, but added, “now we have drivers to take commodities to different municipalities, but also diesel so they are starting to distribute.”
However, he noted that it was "not correct" that the containers held aid for FEMA to distribute.
"All FEMA commodities are being distributed,” said de la Campa, adding that the shipping containers had already been in waiting in the docks of San Juan from before Hurricane Maria hit last week.
“They couldn't get them because of the storm. They have been there before Hurricane Maria. Those are the commodities and trailers they are talking about," said de la Campa.
The head of FEMA, Brock Long, told CNN on Thursday morning that he was unaware of the containers of goods left waiting in the docks.
"I don't even know if those are our shipping containers or not. I don't know what image you're referring to," he told host Kate Bolduan, moments after she'd interviewed a reporter standing in front of the containers.
Fuel shortages and communication problems have dogged the island since Hurricane Maria hit, and authorities had been unable to arrange for the aid to be distributed to the half million people it could help, CBS reported.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday that one of the challenges of the disaster was that civil employees — like bus drivers and police officers — hadn't shown up to work as they dealt with blocked roads and destroyed homes.
"We need bus drivers and buses to deliver crates," he said.
Downed cell towers also make it near impossible to contact drivers and workers about the containers being ready for delivery.
"When we say we that we don't have truck drivers, we mean that we have not been able to contact them," Rosselló told CNN.
Shipping company Crowley told CNN on Wednesday about 3,000 containers full of emergency supplies including construction material, even cars, left waiting in the San Juan port. Only 4% of the containers had been distributed from the port so far, CNN reported.
"The problem has been with the logistics, the parts of the supply chain that move the cargo from our terminal to the shelves or to the tables of the people in Puerto Rico," Crowley's vice president in Puerto Rico, Jose Ayala, said Wednesday.
"This hurricane was catastrophic," he said.
Crowley's head office has not yet responded to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
FEMA chief Long acknowledged that the biggest issue in Puerto Rico was the distribution of goods, which had become a huge challenge for FEMA, and that he was "not satisfied" with the situation in Puerto Rico.
"You can only shove so much through the airports that were not operational; you can only shove so much through the shipping ports that were not operational," he told CNN.
Once we get it to islands, we've established distribution sites and we're also doing air lifts to the remote locations. The roadway system is gone in many places. It's not possible to pick up the supplies and move it forward.
That last mile is a coordinated sequenced process to be able to get it to the points of distribution.
Many communities are coming in to these points of distribution to pick up the supplies themselves and being very resourceful in doing so, while we're also trying to push as much out as we can. As the supply chains come back online, we will be able to increase the amount of supplies that are going.
But listen, we're not going to be able to move as fast as everybody would like us, or as I would like.
More FEMA workers, US troops, and volunteers are arriving for disaster relief.
Michael Brown, who served as the head of FEMA before he was terminated during the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, spoke on CNN Thursday morning about the need for personnel to distribute goods, such as those stuck in the port.
"If I ... had a team of investigators, I would find out how long did it take to do the assessments of the ports and the assessments of the docks. It's one thing to get the ships into the ports. It's another thing to get the cargo off the ships onto the dock," Brown said. "Now, people should be asking now, which I think is a legitimate question, is, 'Where are the personnel now to start doing the distribution?'"
Rosselló said Thursday that FEMA and the National Guard were able to drop off urgent food and water supplies across the island on Wednesday, in "nearly all the regions of Puerto Rico."
The Trump administration on Thursday also lifted the waiver on the Jones Act — a shipping rule that charges hefty tariffs to non-US flagged ships making deliveries between US ports — after a request from the island's governor.
“The president, has answered all our responses and done it quickly,” said Rosselló, echoing Trump's comments that because of Puerto Rico's geography, it's much more difficult to get federal aid supplies to the island as they must be flown in or sent by boat. "And that delays the process a bit."
But homeland security officials noted on Wednesday that the major issue wasn't ships arriving but instead getting aid from those ships to where it was needed.
“The most significant challenge is disruption to move within the island,” a DHS official told reporters.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.