Politicians from both political parties reacted angrily to news of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s plan to end shipment of emergency food and water supplies to storm-battered Puerto Rico. On Tuesday, several lawmakers called on the agency to reverse its decision.
Details of FEMA’s plan – which the agency said would take effect Jan. 31 — were first reported by NPR. In addition to ending new shipments to the island, the agency said it would turn the food and water that remained over to the Puerto Rican government, which would distribute them until stocks ran out.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said he was “absolutely shocked” by FEMA’s decision. “I urge the administration to reverse this disastrous decision immediately and to continue providing the people of Puerto Rico with the help that they need as they are trying to recover from two disastrous hurricanes.”
His concerns were echoed by Democrats and Republicans alike, including Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“There are still a lot of people that wonder why we are giving foreign aid to Puerto Rico,” Rubio told USA Today. “You have to remind them, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its residents are U.S. citizens.”
But perhaps the most surprising reaction came from the government of Puerto Rico itself. In a statement, the island’s public security secretary, Hector Pesquera, said that while he was aware that FEMA would eventually transfer responsibility for distributing food and water supplies over to the island’s government, “this has not happened yet and we were not informed that supplies would stop arriving.”
His statement contradicted information that FEMA sent NPR in an email last week. An agency spokeswoman wrote that “FEMA will continue to provide commodities to the State [Puerto Rico] until January 31st.” She also wrote that the agency’s food and water mission would “officially shut off” on that date.
But as public concerns mounted over FEMA’s plans following NPR’s report, the agency released a new statement. While reiterating its belief that emergency food and water supplies were no longer needed on the island, it said that FEMA would “continue to support the Government of Puerto Rico to meet the needs they identify.”
In a follow-up interview, a second FEMA spokesperson, William Booher, said that the agency still had no plans to resume shipments of new food and water to Puerto Rico. But until further notice, he said, local officials will be able to access the supplies already on the island the way they always have – by going to one of nine warehouses where FEMA stores them.
He said the agency is confident it has enough of a stockpile to meet the need that remains. If supplies run out, he said FEMA would reconsider purchasing more. He did not say when the agency would finalize its plan to hand the remaining supplies over to the Puerto Rican government.