Oct 4, 2022 - World

Report: FEMA mismanaged Puerto Rico hurricane relief funds after Maria

A man in Puerto Rico walks through mud after Hurricane Fiona devastated the island

Antonio Perez Miranda walks out of his house after Hurricane Fiona. Photo: Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

President Biden's visit to Puerto Rico on Monday came as a new report detailed how the Federal Emergency Management Agency mismanaged millions in funds to help the island's residents after the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The big picture: Puerto Rico is still reeling from the destruction left by Hurricane Fiona two weeks ago.

  • 92,000 homes remain without power.
  • Authorities have linked 25 deaths in the island to the hurricane, CNN reports.

Driving the news: According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General — dated Sept. 29 but released publicly Monday — FEMA mismanaged $65 million intended to help Puerto Rico residents with disaster relief after Hurricane Maria, which killed an estimated 3,000 people and destroyed the island's power grid.

  • "We always seek to improve our programs after every disaster and apply the lessons learned to better meet the needs of communities," FEMA spokesperson Jeremy Edwards said in a statement to Axios.
  • "We will continue to leverage best practices and implement corrective actions where necessary following any disaster," Edwards added.
  • "In addition to helping Puerto Ricans recover from Hurricane Maria, we also remain focused on our active responses to Fiona and Ian, and we will take both best practices and lessons learned from Maria and other disasters to better meet survivors’ unique needs.”

What they're saying: "It’s alarming because, as this audit correctly concludes, obviously all of these findings led to great suspicion about FEMA, but also it increased the probability that fraud has been committed and, of course, that the funds have been wasted and that they have been abused," said Lía Fiol-Matta, a senior attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF (Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund).

  • Fiol-Matta pointed to another U.S. government report from last month that compared FEMA responses to Hurricane Harvey in the mainland U.S. and to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
  • According to the report, "if you were a Puerto Rican national, you faced perceptions that you were not really Americans, where FEMA’s complete lack of preparedness to respond to Maria seemed directly proportional to that perception."
  • A separate 2020 report found FEMA had lost track of nearly $257 million worth of supplies meant for hurricane recovery efforts.

The big picture: President Biden yesterday announced the administration will provide $60 million to Puerto Rico to help the island shore up protections against future storms.

  • "In the wake of Hurricane Fiona, I'm announcing a $60 million investment to shore up levees and flood walls, and create a new flood warning system to help residents better prepare for future storms," Biden tweeted Monday afternoon.
  • The new funding will come from the bipartisan infrastructure law, the White House said.

Yes, but: Fiol-Matta said Biden had already shown much more sensitivity and action in response to the hurricane than his predecessor, but that spending a few hours on the island wasn't going to be enough to understand the depth of the problems in Puerto Rico.

  • Fiol-Matta said that even areas where power has been restored are seeing occasional blackouts.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include FEMA's comment.

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