WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has, in recent weeks, claimed that he is “the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico,” in an effort to win over Puerto Rican voters in Florida. But a new government report shows his administration lost track of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of potentially lifesaving food and water, as thousands died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“FEMA lost visibility of about 38 percent of its commodity shipments to Puerto Rico, worth an estimated $257 million. Commodities successfully delivered to Puerto Rico took an average of 69 days to reach their final destinations,” the report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General found.
For the past three years, Trump has consistently blamed local authorities for the inadequate response to Puerto Rico’s devastating hurricane.
Some FEMA supplies intended for Puerto Rico never even left Florida, according to the report.
Most of those supplies consisted of food and water deliveries, in addition to blankets, cots, tarps, and sheeting. The inspector general’s findings, released Thursday, are in line with what BuzzFeed News and others reported seeing on the ground in Puerto Rico after the hurricane: inadequate federal deliveries of basic supplies, long waits for any supplies at all to arrive, and a lack of accountability at every level on how those supplies were being distributed.
FEMA shipped 97 million liters of water to Puerto Rico between September 2017, when Hurricane Maria made landfall, and April 2018, according to the report. Of that 97 million liters, just 36 million liters definitely reached local distribution points. In those first eight months following the hurricane, FEMA shipped 53 million meals to Puerto Rico. Just 24 million verifiably reached local distribution points.
“The remaining commodity shipments for both water and meals that arrived in the Commonwealth either remained in FEMA’s custody were in contractor facilities, or had unknown destinations,” the report found.
Three years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover. In the months following the storm, at least three thousand Puerto Ricans died, many from a lack of access to clean water, food (harder to store because electricity on most parts of the island was down for several months), shelter, and timely medical care. Some residents of Puerto Rico lived with open roofs on their houses for months after the hurricane because emergency tarps had not reached them.
Last year, Trump fought against additional funding to help Puerto Rico recover from the disaster, repeating false claims that the island had already gotten more money than for any previous hurricane and blamed local officials for the US territory’s slow recovery. Trump claimed in 2018 that Puerto Rico’s death toll had been faked to make him look “as bad as possible.”
According to the report, FEMA knew from a 2011 exercise that Puerto Rico would need extra support from the federal agency to get supplies distributed throughout the island in an emergency. Despite that, the report says, the agency failed to prepare. The agency also failed to follow the regular standards of tracking deliveries and holding contractors to account by asking for documented proof of deliveries, the inspector general found.
“Given the lost visibility and delayed shipments, FEMA cannot ensure it provided commodities to Puerto Rico disaster survivors as needed to sustain life and alleviate suffering as part of its response and recovery mission,” the report says.
The issue was not just tracking the shipments after they’d reached the island — the report found that for these supplies, “FEMA headquarters did not record customer orders in a timely manner, or did not record them at all,” which lead to confusion and backing up of deliveries at the deployment point in Jacksonville, Florida.
“In response to the large volume of commodities ordered, FEMA had to open up two overflow sites in Jacksonville to store commodities awaiting shipment, as well as divert a significant amount of commodities to other locations,” the report says. “According to [FEMA] personnel in Jacksonville, some commodity shipments intended for Puerto Rico likely never left the continental United States.”
The supplies that did make it to Puerto Rico “sat in FEMA’s custody at various locations on the island approximately 48 days,” followed by another week of delivery time on average before reaching local distribution centers, according to the inspector general.
“Water and food, two of the most important life-sustaining commodities, experienced average shipping delays of 71 and 59 days, respectively,” the report says.
The end result of a shortfall in supplies and some of the available supplies never arriving was that after waiting at least ten days for any kind of assistance to arrive, just 20% of municipalities on the island received enough food and only 27% of municipalities received enough water to supply survivors of the hurricane.
There were also problems with the food that did arrive — 40% of the municipalities said they received expired food and some “‘meal’ boxes ... included junk food such as Oreos, candy, cereal bars, and other similar items that lacked sufficient nutritional value.”
Some of the inspector general’s findings repeat what FEMA’s own internal post-disaster report revealed in 2018. The agency’s resources were already drained and in a state of disorder from responding to other high-intensity hurricanes that hit the US in 2017 by the time Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, from Hurricane Harvey in Texas to Hurricane Irma, which hit the Florida panhandle and Puerto Rico.
Compounding the breakdowns in federal record-keeping and accountability, the inspector general found that Puerto Rican government staff used manual records haphazardly filed in random locations rather than having a formal system to keep track of food, water, and other supplies received from FEMA and distributed to local authorities.
“For example, we requested supporting documentation to verify commodity distribution numbers in the Puerto Rico government’s summary reports provided to FEMA,” the inspector general wrote. “Puerto Rico government officials could not provide the supporting commodity distribution records because they were dispersed throughout various locations on the island, including a personal residence."