The US government on Thursday acknowledged that roughly 12 million bottles of water were left exposed to the elements on an airport runway in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico for months, confirming for the first time the scale of the blunder.
Justo Hernández, deputy federal coordinating officer of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters that the 19,841 pallets of water were left on the runway at José Aponte de la Torre Airport and that as a result, “some of that water was spoiled.”
Confusion about how such a massive miscalculation and subsequent handling of the water began Tuesday when photos of the bottled water were posted on Facebook. Public outrage was swift as US government agencies avoided taking responsibility for the wasted water.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, leaving residents without gas, power, or potable water for months. At one point, nearly 1.5 million people had no access to drinking water, forcing some to drink unsafe water from creeks and rivers.
In the months that the water appears to have been on the runway starting in January, most people had running water on the island, though for many it was still sporadic.
An employee for the United Forces of Rapid Action agency of the Puerto Rico Police told CBS News he first saw the bottles in the fall of 2017, but only recently posted the pictures on Facebook because he was angry they were still there.
Hernández said that in January, FEMA had identified “an excess of water on the island” and began storing it at the airport. But it wasn’t until April that Puerto Rico’s General Services Administration took custody of the pallets of water.
In a statement, the General Services administrator, Ottmar Chávez, said that after his workers began delivering the water, they received complaints about the “smell and taste of the water.”
“Based on those complaints, we contacted FEMA to return the water to the federal GSA inventory,” Chávez said.
Hernández stressed that, despite the complaints, there have been no reports of people becoming sick from food or water that has been distributed by the emergency agencies.
He added that while the water continued to be stored for months out in the open at the airport, officials tried to rotate older pallets with new shipments as they came in. As older pallets were delivered to local jurisdictions, the newly delivered pallets were placed on the runway, he said.
Despite the additional details, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Thursday he wants FEMA to explicitly say his administration was not responsible for the water.
“It’s important to say that when that news came out, a FEMA spokesperson pointed to the government of Puerto Rico as if they were responsible for this water on the runway,” he said. “However, with the evidence after conducting part of an investigation, the story is different. We’re already seeing that FEMA is starting to acknowledge their responsibility for this water.”
He also pointed to satellite photos that he said showed FEMA had started placing the water on the runway in January, but that the agency did not make it clear to other agencies it was available until several months later, when the bottles were already sun-damaged.
Salvador Hernandez contributed reporting to this story.