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No One Wants To Admit They Are Responsible For Millions Of Water Bottles Abandoned In Puerto Rico

People in Puerto Rico struggled to find drinkable water for months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Meanwhile, millions of water bottles sat unused on a runway.

Posted on September 12, 2018, at 8:32 p.m. ET

Abdiel Santana / Facebook / Via facebook.com

Thousands upon thousands of boxes filled with water bottles have been left unused and abandoned on an airport runway in Puerto Rico nearly a year after Hurricane Maria devastated the region, even as people on the island struggled to find safe drinking water in the aftermath of the storm.

Pictures of millions of water bottles sitting out in the open air at the José Aponte de la Torre Airport were posted on Facebook Tuesday, sparking outrage on social media and raising more questions about the government's response to Hurricane Maria.

"Believe it or not...nearly a million boxes of water that were never delivered to the people of P.R. during the emergency of Hurricane Maria," Abdiel Santana posted on Facebook in Spanish, alongside aerial pictures of the water bottles lying abandoned. "Is there someone that can explain this?"

But no government agency, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the government of Puerto Rico, has claimed responsibility for leaving the water abandoned in the hot sun for months, reportedly making the water bottles a smelly and undrinkable mess.

CBS News was the first to report on the abandoned water bottles after being notified by Santana, who works for the United Forces of Rapid Action agency of the Puerto Rico Police.

Santana told CBS News he first saw the bottles in the fall of 2017, and posted the pictures on Facebook Tuesday because he was angry they were still there.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, leaving the territory's residents without gas, power, or potable water for months. At one point, almost 1.5 million had no access to drinking water, forcing some residents to drink unsafe water like creeks and rivers in the island.

The pictures on Facebook of the unused and wasted water bottles, which have been shared more than 3,000 times, were posted on the same day President Donald Trump called the federal government's response to Hurricane Maria "incredibly successful" — despite the Puerto Rican government's recent admission that 3,000 people had died as a result of the disaster.

People affected by Hurricane Maria bathe in water piped from a creek in the mountains, in Naranjito.
Ramon Espinosa / AP

People affected by Hurricane Maria bathe in water piped from a creek in the mountains, in Naranjito.

A FEMA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News late Tuesday that the water bottles did not belong to the agency.

But pressed on whether the agency had delivered the bottles to the island in response to Hurricane Maria, FEMA admitted that it did purchase the water as part of the supplies shipped to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria, but said the agency later determined they had a surplus of supplies.

"Then FEMA announced that the water would be available to any agency that needed it," FEMA spokesperson Lenisha Smith told BuzzFeed News. "The General Service Administration (GSA) showed interest in this inventory and requested it be transferred."

According to Smith, the water bottles then became the property of the Puerto Rican government, and the GSA took charge of distributing it in the island.

FEMA did not respond to BuzzFeed News' questions about when the water was originally ordered, when it arrived in Puerto Rico, or when it was made available to the government of Puerto Rico.

In a press conference, Puerto Rico government officials said that the water had not been made available in the aftermath of the hurricane, stating that the territory's agencies were not notified of its availability until April 2018 — seven months after the storm hit.

Ottmar Chávez, the administrator of Puerto Rico's General Services Administration, said his agency was given custody of the water in May 2018, assuming responsibility for 20,000 pallets of water that had yet to be distributed.

"GSA took control of the inventory in May 2018 before I took over the agency's functions," said Chavez, who took control of the Puerto Rican GSA, known locally as Administracíon de Servicios Generales (ASG), in July.

But, Chávez explained, his agency quickly stopped delivering the bottles after getting complaints that the water had a bad taste and smell.

People affected by Hurricane Maria collected water in the mountains in Naranjito.
Ramon Espinosa / AP

People affected by Hurricane Maria collected water in the mountains in Naranjito.

Officials also noted that FEMA had not made the water available directly to the Puerto Rican government, but through a federal program that allows state and local governments to obtain surplus inventory from federal agencies.

Héctor Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety, said the territory's government did not know the millions of bottles were sitting out in the sun. He suggested it was FEMA that had left the water out in the open, ultimately making the millions of water bottles unusable.

"We do not know when FEMA moved the inventory to the Roosevelt Roads base in Ceiba," Pesquera said. When the Puerto Rican GSA obtained the water from the federal government, he said, "photographs appeared to show bottled water in a warehouse."

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