FEMA Now Says It Won’t Cut Off Food and Water Aid to Puerto Rico

 Residents carry food and water provided by FEMA  on Oct. 17, 2017, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Residents carry food and water provided by FEMA on Oct. 17, 2017, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Updated Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, at 4:15 p.m. EST: In a reversal that should tell you everything you need to know about the way the federal government has responded to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, FEMA now says that it won’t cut off food and water funding to the island, which is still suffering the effects of Hurricane Maria.


As the New York Times reports, FEMA now claims that it never intended to end the aid and that it has no plans to at this time. Instead, the Jan. 31 cutoff date was “mistakenly publicized by the agency,” according to the newspaper. FEMA spokesman William Booher told the Times that Wednesday was actually an internal planning date for the agency to assess whether Puerto Rico still needed assistance.

From the Times:

“This aid is not stopping,” Mr. Booher said in an interview. “There was no, and is no, current plan to stop providing these commodities, as long as there continues to be an identified need for them.”

It’s an interesting turn of events, given the nationwide backlash to the news. The cessation of funding was first reported by NPR, which had FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico go so far as to explain why the stopping of food and water supplies would help the Puerto Rican economy.

Despite this, Booher denies that FEMA is backtracking, claiming that if the agency had actually planned to do what its people explicitly said they were going to do, it would have informed the Puerto Rican government. Government officials on the island say that they were blindsided by the earlier announcement to cut off food and water supplies.


Wednesday will mark the last day Puerto Ricans will receive food and water aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As NPR reports, FEMA will, in its own words, “officially shut off” the aid on Jan. 31.


NPR says that the decision signals that FEMA believes the immediate humanitarian emergency has ended.

Until this point, the agency has provided Puerto Rico with more than 30 million gallons of potable water and about 60 million meals in the four months since the devastation wrought by two back-to-back hurricanes. FEMA says that its remaining food and water supplies will be handed over to the Puerto Rican government for distribution.


“The reality is that we just need to look around. Supermarkets are open, and things are going back to normal,” Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico, told NPR.

But according to multiple media outlets, many islanders still lack basic necessities. ThinkProgress reports that 1 million Puerto Ricans still lack power, and hundreds of thousands still don’t have access to clean water. FEMA, in deciding to close off its food and water aid, said that only 1 percent of the island still needed that sort of assistance—a small-enough number that local governments and nonprofit groups could shoulder the work.


But that 1 percent can be tightly concentrated in certain areas. As Morovis Mayor Carmen Maldonado told NPR, a third of her municipality’s 30,000 residents are still receiving FEMA’s food and water rations. Further, even if supermarkets are operational, the island’s lack of power still poses a major problem for Puerto Ricans.

As Maldonado explains, 80 percent of Morovis still lacks electricity. Whatever money spent on food is money that can’t be spent on fuel.


“In municipalities like this one, where families are going out to work just to buy gas to run a generator, it becomes very hard,” she said.

BuzzFeed reports that as of Monday, a third of the island was still without power. Some Puerto Ricans told BuzzFeed that they hope President Donald Trump will address some of these issues during his first State of the Union, though they’re aware it’s not likely.



In October the international aid agency I work for (I’m based elsewhere) had to step in because the US government’s response to PR was inadequate. Not only was this embarrassing for the US, but it drained resources earmarked for emergencies in countries that literally do not have the leadership, infrastructure or skills to respond to crises, and in most cases those countries are in crippling cycles of crises and recovery. Now we’re scaling back operations in PR and just providing grants to local organisations and technical expertise where needed, it’s not good practice or sustainable to get embedded, so I don’t know what the complete withdrawal of FEMA is going to mean.

At the time everyone agreed there was a need to step in but the mood was one of collective anger and shock. Particularly because this administration is not only withdrawing US aid from the global South, and from multiple international agreements but taking every conceivable action to make the planet and the people on it less secure, stable and healthy. He has in a year basically halted 20 years of progress on aHIV, on long-term development literally held community based family planning orgs hostage. Long term his undoing of Obama’s work on climate change and funding for it is only going to make Puerto Rico and everywhere else more prone to disaster. My sector is full of problematic behaviours and ideologies and most days I question my role in it but the day he described African countries and Haiti as shitholes, while allowing international aid agencies to clean up his yard at the expense of supporting those countries to recover from decisions made by men like him, I honestly felt like the war was lost.