The government’s mismanagement of the crisis Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico was once again thrust into the spotlight this week, when photos of a large number of bottled water pallets sitting derelict outside an airport in Ceiba went viral on social media.
But while the public outcry was swift after CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud broadcasted the photos of what he said looked like “millions” of bottles of water on his Twitter account Tuesday night, what really happened may be a bit more complex than a simple failure to deliver relief supplies.
The photographer who took these images, Abdiel Santana, works for the Puerto Rican Joint Forces of Rapid Action, a federal law enforcement agency. He told Begnaud he had noticed these loads of water in October or November of last year, according to CBS. After flying over the region again recently, Santana told Begnaud he noticed the bottles were still there and uploaded the images to Facebook Tuesday. Earther has reached out to Santana for comment and we will update if we hear back.
Puerto Rican General Services Administration (GSA) has a somewhat different account of the events. In a press release shared with Earther, the agency explained the Puerto Rican government was eager to receive some of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “excess water inventory” and claimed about 20,000 pallets in May 2018. But after delivering over 700 pallets, the agency received “several complaints” about their smell and taste. That’s why the rest of the bottles are still sitting unused, per the agency.
On Thursday, FEMA told CBS News it had moved the water outside in January to save money before transferring it over to the Puerto Rican government in April.
FEMA was initially quick to distance itself from the story. On Wednesday, the agency told Earther that the water was handed off to the GSA, and, from there, the water was its responsibility. Looks like the administration is clapping back at FEMA, however, with claims that the water wasn’t fit to drink by the time they got it. Now, the Puerto Rican government is coordinating water tests with FEMA and the Department of Health.
“The Municipality of Barceloneta and the Corporation for Public Dissemination expressed these complaints,” said GSA Administrator Ottmar Chávez, in the press release.
All of this is news to Ceiba Mayor Angelo Cruz Ramos, who told Earther he had no idea these pallets of water were sitting within his municipality. He found out about it Tuesday night like the rest of us. He doesn’t have access to the area where the water is, he said, because it’s run by FEMA.
However, Cruz Ramos said his municipality had enough water and food at the height of the crisis. Around 700 to 800 people would visit a local distribution center to pick up water and food every day in the aftermath of the storm, and the mayor would also hit the streets to give out further water. Once power returned to the region in March, he ended relief supply distribution efforts.
“I’m thankful to FEMA and the U.S. government,” he told Earther. “I always had food and water to give the people, sometimes two cases of water for families.”
The same can’t be said for other remote parts of the island where water distribution centers were something out of a fairy tale. Still, Cruz Ramos made a good point that once this water was left in the sun even for a day or two, it was no longer safe to drink. The Caribbean sun is no joke, and researchers caution against drinking bottled water that’s been left out in the garage or a car all day during the summer because of the chemicals that can leach from the plastic into the water. In Puerto Rico, summer never ends.
This entire mess comes on the heels of President Donald Trump calling the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria an “unsung success.” Whoever’s at fault, thousands of water bottles abandoned on an island where people have been struggling for months to access clean water isn’t exactly what success looks like.
Updated: 9/13/18, 2:30 p.m. ET: After a day of outrage, FEMA admitted to CBS News it had left the water bottles out since January as a cost-saving measure. It then went on to give the General Services Administration the water in April. The story has been updated to include this new information.