Puerto Rico's governor fired the US territory's emergency management director and two high-ranking officials after viral footage of disaster relief aid sitting unused in a warehouse provoked angry residents to break into the facility and begin distributing it to people in need themselves.
The uproar comes as communities on the island continue to grapple with the aftermath of devastating earthquakes that have left many residents in need of basic supplies. On Saturday, Lorenzo Torres Delgado, an activist and watchdog who goes by the name El Leon de Fiscalizador, went live on Facebook from a large warehouse in the southeastern city of Ponce, one of several cities still reeling from a series of earthquakes that forced thousands of people into shelters and caused about $200 million in damage.
The footage shows pallets of water, generators, baby diapers and wipes, mounds of blue tarps, and boxes of Ready Meals sitting inside the large facility, many with signs that say "FEMA, Not For Resale." Some of the supplies had been sitting there since Hurricane Maria struck the region in 2017.
In a statement on Twitter, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced announced that she had fired the island's top emergency official and condemned the fact that the supplies were kept unused. Later, she dismissed Puerto Ricos' head of the department of children and families and the territory's secretary of housing. She also announced an investigation into the mishandling of any aid at the warehouse or "any others which may exist."
“There are thousands of people who have made sacrifices to help those in the south, and it is unforgivable that resources were kept in the warehouse,” she said.
At a press conference Sunday evening, she added that she had ordered a complete inventory of what supplies remained in warehouses as well as their expiration dates. The National Guard would be assisting in the response, she said.
"It’s unacceptable," she said. "The indignation that the people feel, I also feel."
Puerto Ricans have been accusing their government of withholding and mismanaging disaster relief supplies and funds for years. About a year after two powerful hurricanes slammed the island in 2017, killing nearly 2,000 people and leveling entire neighborhoods, videos posted by Radio Isla showed about 10 shipping containers full of food, water, and baby supplies meant for storm victims rotting at an election commissions office.
Before his firing, Carlos Acevedo, the head of the National Emergency Management and Disaster Relief Agency, denied that the aid had been mishandled, calling the allegations "insane."
In a lengthy statement, he said that a structural engineer who had examined the warehouse recommended removing the supplies from the facility due to damage from the earthquake. Firefighters were working to distribute the supplies.
"There are still pallets of food, water, diapers, and baby formula, cots and awnings in the warehouse," he wrote. "At no time was it ordered to seize or destroy these items. At the moment, there is no shortage of any of these items and they are being distributed to people that need them, a fact that may be verified in shelters and base camp.”
In response to the pushback that Delgado captured on video, Acevedo said that the blogger "violated the security perimeter, which in turn represented a risk for him. For this reason, he was instructed to leave the area."
The Facebook live recording went viral, prompting local residents on Saturday to push into the facility and take goods. Videos from reporters show a crowd of people huddling around the entrance as others stand on large packages of bottled water and examined vital goods like Pedialyte, portable stoves, emergency radios, and batteries. In one clip, a person zooms in on a container of baby food that expired in July 2019, insinuating that it had been sitting there for some time.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, FEMA echoed President Trump's recent sentiments accusing Puerto Rican officials of mismanaging federal disaster assistance and donations. The agency and its partners were committed to rebuilding Puerto Rico in a way that was fiscally sound and resilient against future disasters, the statement said.
"Therefore, given Puerto Rico’s significant history of fiscal irregularities and mismanagement, the federal government will continue to impose stringent fiscal oversight and risk management measures to ensure all disaster relief funding and resources are expended in a manner that directly assists the disaster survivors who need them most while protecting the U.S. taxpayers’ investment against the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse," FEMA said.
The federal disaster agency has, at the request of the US territory, provided nearly 1.1 million liters of water, 5,000 cots, and nearly163 meals to help residents in earthquake-impacted areas recover.
FEMA has 7 warehouses across the island that are filled with commodities that Puerto Rican officials requested for disaster victims. The state is tasked with dispersing the aid to survivors, the agency said.
Later Saturday night, police announced that they had intervened when another group attempted to get into the facility to access the supplies and took control of the building.
Infuriated that so much emergency aid had been kept in a warehouse as their residents scrambled to recover from yet another disaster, local leaders in the area demanded an explanation.
María Meléndez, Ponce's mayor, called the situation "outrageous" in an interview with El Vocero de Puerto Rico.
“It is unacceptable that people are being deprived of items they need right now. I feel indignant and frustrated with everything that has transpired. Yesterday we demanded an explanation of the findings that resulted in the dismissal of the head of the Emergency Management Bureau. We want those responsible to pay for what they did," she said. "I spent several days requesting cots and water. They sent me to look for the cots in Cabo Rojo and the water in San Juan. If I had known that those supplies were there, I would have demanded that they be taken out immediately.”
In an emotional Facebook video, Peñuelas Mayor Gregory Gonsalez said learning about the unused supplies was incredibly frustrating because he has seen so many people in need.
“There are people in need. And they’re playing with us,” he said, referencing the “imbeciles” in the government. "We have a mountain of lost supplies, and people suffering. How can I face people and tell them it’s all right?”
Since a magnitude 4.7 earthquake rattled southwestern Puerto Rico Dec. 28, more than 300 earthquakes have struck the region, the US Geological Survey reported. The aftershocks and tremors have terrorized residents, and many people are sleeping outside or in their cars out of fear. Volunteers from across the island are driving hours to deliver food and water to the hardest-hit areas, including Peñuelas.
Gonsalez also said he believes the Ponce warehouse is not the only case of critical supplies being kept from residents, stating, "There’s more. There’s many more.”
According to El Vocero, police are now stationed at 13 different facilities across the island operated by the emergency and disaster agency.
After Delgado's footage went viral on Saturday, he said on Twitter that Facebook had suspended his page "due to complaints."
Angry users started a petition demanding the social media company reinstate the page, arguing that it was a vital resource to report on corruption in the government. Facebook did not immediately respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.
On Sunday afternoon, Facebook reinstated the page, which has more than 180,000 followers.
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the page had incorrectly been marked as spam.
"The page is back up," the spokesperson said. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."
As the footage continued to spread, amassing more than 800,000 views, outraged residents began to protest outside the governor's mansion and in front of the capital of San Juan, demanding that she resign.
Waving flags, banging on pots, and chanting, "Where is Wanda? Wanda is hiding the country’s supplies," people demanded an end to corruption, echoing last summer's massive demonstrations against then-governor Ricardo Rosselló, who eventually stepped down.
In a tweet, Vázquez Garced said she respects the constitutional right of citizens to demonstrate and asked that they remain civil. She also requested that the riot police guarding her residence be removed.
On Monday, Puerto Rico's National Guard finished taking inventory of the Ponce warehouse, loaded the supplies into trucks, and began distributing it to earthquake survivors.
In an interview with CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, the head of the territory's chapter of the National Guard Major General José Reyes said he did not know the warehouses existed, nor why the piles of donations were "kept in secret."
Reyes is also now in charge of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency after the governor fired Acevedo over the warehouse scandal.
The general believes that the bulk of the supplies were mainly donations that had been delivered after Hurricane Maria.
Reyes said that in addition to the Ponce warehouse, the state owns and operates another facility in Guaynabo.
He does not know why the supplies were not immediately distributed to people after the earthquakes.
Having obtained the contracts for the warehouses, the head of the national guard told Begnaud that Puerto Rico's emergency management agency had been paying another state agency to rent these spaces for about three years.
In total, the state paid $890,000 itself to stock these facilities with things like milk, generators, baby supplies, and water, Reyes confirmed.