Lawmakers Respond To FEMA Puerto Rico Cutoff
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it is not stopping food and water distribution in Puerto Rico after all. FEMA officials had told NPR that today would be the last for that mission, which has gone since Hurricane Maria last fall. Now, after NPR's reporting triggered a strong response from some lawmakers, FEMA says that the original announcement was a mistake. NPR's Adrian Florido originally reported this story. He's on the line from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Hey there, Adrian.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So would you just remind us, what has this food distribution been like? What do you actually see on the streets day-to-day?
FLORIDO: So it's changed over the course of the last four months since the hurricane. Originally, the way it worked was that - well, it was kind of a haphazard kind of - sort of chaotic distribution because conditions on the island were so bad. A lot of communities were completely cut off from roads and bridges and access to other parts of the island. So in the early days and weeks after the storm, a lot of times, FEMA was sending food and water into communities, like, on helicopters and basically any way that they could. You know, more recently, the process has been streamlined.
So the way that it works is that FEMA distributes cases of food and water to warehouses it has spread across the island. And then municipal officials, city officials, mayors show up to these warehouses, pick up the supplies that they need and then take them back to their towns to distribute to families that need them.
INSKEEP: OK. And so what did FEMA tell you specifically was happening today and why?
FLORIDO: So what FEMA originally told me was that as of - well, that they were going to continue providing commodities here until January 31, until today, and that after today, their food mission would, quote, "officially shut off." And the reason was because they said there was just no longer any need for this kind of aid here in Puerto Rico. The conditions had improved enough so that they could essentially pull back. And that was what they originally said.
INSKEEP: But I think your reporting has revealed there still are some people out there who say they were depending on that food. And there was a reaction from people like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and another Florida senator, Bill Nelson. Let's listen to him.
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BILL NELSON: 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.
INSKEEP: That was some of the congressional response. What is FEMA saying now?
FLORIDO: So - right. So after this story is getting attention from lawmakers, they said, you know, actually, you know, we made a mistake. We have been planning to withdraw this aid, and we're in the process of doing that. But that date, January 31, today - that wasn't right, and we shouldn't have said that. We're still phasing this aid out, but for the time being, people on the island can and will continue to be able to get this help if they need it by continuing to go to the warehouses that we have across the island.
INSKEEP: OK. So that means that people who need it can get food today, tomorrow and some point in the future, although this program is, it sounds like, still going away.
FLORIDO: That's right. I mean, the agency has already stopped shipping new food and aid - food and water to the island. And they don't have plans to restart that. That's done. But what they're saying is that they still have enough on the island so that people and mayors who need it can still continue to get it and get it to their communities.
INSKEEP: Are Puerto Ricans satisfied with this tweak to the announcement?
FLORIDO: Well, I actually just got off the phone with FEMA before getting on the line with you. And so I haven't had a chance to assess the Puerto Rican government's and people's response, but I will do that as soon as we're done talking.
INSKEEP: OK. Thanks for all your reporting, sounds like there is still more to report. That's NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan.
FLORIDO: Thanks, Steve.
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