Oct 1, 2020 - Politics & Policy

IG report: FEMA struggled to send food, water to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

A long line of people stand outside

People wait on line for free food and health supplies passed out by the nonprofit Lets Give on Dec. 19, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

FEMA lost track of nearly $257 million worth of supplies — 98% of which was food and water — meant to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the agency's inspector general found in a report published Thursday.

Why it matters: Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, was the worst natural disaster to hit the island, and resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths just two weeks after Hurricane Irma skirted the island and left over 1 million residents without power.

What happened: Some supplies meant to be shipped to Puerto Rico likely never left the continental U.S., employees at the agency's emergency response center in Jacksonville, Florida, told the inspector general's office.

  • Supplies — mostly food and meals, along with blankets, tarps, cots and sheets — were backlogged in two overflow sites in Jacksonville because FEMA did not record orders at all or quickly enough for employees to know what was being shipped and when.
  • FEMA shipped food that was "nutritionally deficient," according to the inspector general's report — which "included junk food such as Oreos, candy, cereal bars" and other snacks.
  • The agency was unable to provide documentation for contractor invoices totaling about $50 million, the report said.

The impact: FEMA indicated that it could not locate 19 containers of food and water in its final assessment, the report says, amounting to $303,000 of lost contents.

  • The agency took an average of 69 days to deliver supplies to the island, the IG said, and some food, water and other goods sat in FEMA custody in Puerto Rico for roughly 48 days.
  • Approximately 37% of the water meant to ship to the island between September 2017 and April 2018 was delivered, and 45% of the food shipped by FEMA reached Puerto Rico.
  • Food and water that went unshipped "either remained in FEMA’s custody, were in contractor facilities, or had unknown destinations."

The big picture: Throughout his first term, President Trump has resisted giving Puerto Rico any more federal money for its recovery from Hurricane Maria.

  • Last month, the White House authorized $11.6 billion in federal aid and FEMA grants to rebuild infrastructure on the island — and touted the grants as some of the largest in FEMA's history.

What they're saying: FEMA worked with the inspector general's office on the findings, but the agency says "the report’s characterization and some of the audit’s conclusions do not tell a complete story " of its disaster response in Puerto Rico, spokesperson Lizzie Litzow said in a statement emailed to Axios.

  • The agency maintains that it "delivered a historic quantity of meals and water to Puerto Rico from September 29, 2017 through April 2018," she said.
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