Bottled water believed to have been from when Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017 is seen in a warehouse in Ponce, Puerto Rico on January 18, 2020, after a powerful earthquake hit the island. - President Donald Trump on January 16 freed up emergency aid for Puerto Rico's recovery from a January 7 earthquake that caused widespread disruption and damage on the island. Trump's declaration of a major disaster in Puerto Rico makes federal funding available for repairs, temporary housing and low-cost loans "to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster," the White House said.
The head of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency is out of a job Sunday after residents of Ponce, one of cities hardest hit by the earthquakes that ravaged the island late last month, discovered a locked warehouse stuffed to the brim with emergency supplies delivered to help those affected by Hurricane Maria more than two years ago.
One resident of Ponce posted a video of the discovery to Facebook, showing a massive warehouse full of pallets upon pallets of bottled water, non-perishable food, diapers, baby formula, and emergency supplies, according to CNN. The video is now private, after the man who recorded it was threatened with repercussions from law enforcement, but the news network says the warehouse contained much-needed supplies that are still useful (and valuable) particularly now that Ponce is suffering from a second natural disaster.
The supplies were apparently delivered as part of a Hurricane Maria relief effort, back in June of 2018, and never distributed, though the (now former) head of Puerto Rico’s emergency management office says he was never instructed to give out the supplies, and then insisted, to media, that residents had full access to all items.
The governor of Puerto Rico, apparently, did not believe him.
“Carlos Acevedo, director of Puerto Rico’s Office of Emergency Management, was dismissed Saturday,” CNN says. “The governor appointed Maj. Gen. José J. Reyes, the adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, to replace him.”
“There are thousands of people who made sacrifices to bring aid to the south and it’s unforgivable that resources have been kept in a warehouse,” the governor added in a statement acknowledging Acevedo’s forced departure.
The Trump White House was criticized back in 2018 for its slow and ineffective response to Hurricane Maria, despite administration claims that thousands of workers and tens of thousands of pounds of supplies were airlifted to Puerto Rico as soon as it was safe.
The supplies never reached those in need and Puerto Ricans suffered for weeks, if not months. Recovery efforts only began in certain parts of the island in September of 2019, according to the Miami Herald — more than a year after Hurricane Maria (and just months before the island would again suffer a devastating natural disaster).
The problem seems to be poor management, at least in part. “After Hurricanes Irma and Maria pounded Puerto Rico, the federal government allocated more than $43 billion dollars for the recover,” the Miami Herald adds. “Of that money, only $21 billion has been “obligated” or earmarked for specific tasks, and only $14 billion has been disbursed — or less than 33 percent.”
Recovery efforts were further hampered by corruption. The FBI is now investigating whether a pay-to-play scheme existed across the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria, with local governors who paid bribes to government officials receiving the earliest and best aid (and, in some cases, allegedly keeping supplies for themselves). Officials even tried to bribe Federal Emergency Management Agency workers for plum contracts to repair the failing electrical grid and water systems (in some cases, it seems, they may have been successful).
To control corruption, the U.S. government placed severe restrictions on how aid money could be spent, further slowing down recovery efforts. And then there’s instances like the one that took place Saturday — sometimes, the aid just didn’t get anywhere.
The supplies in Ponce are being distributed to those in need, the government says.
Looks to me like some heads should roll.