(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Thousands of people took to the streets in Puerto Rico today to protest planned austerity measures including cuts to public schools and pensions and selling off the publicly owned electric grid. The demonstrations were peaceful at the outset, but then hundreds of young protesters clashed with police, who responded by firing teargas. Many businesses on the island closed for the day along with several schools, banks and government agencies. Now, these demonstrations are just the latest challenge for the U.S. territory. The island is still crippled by the slow recovery from Hurricane Maria. Seven months after the storm, tens of thousands of people are still without power.
NPR and the PBS television show "FRONTLINE" have spent months reporting on the storm and the island's recovery. Yesterday we told you how Wall Street made millions as Puerto Rico's economy collapsed. Without money, the island had no way to prepare for or recover from a major storm. It needed the federal government's help.
Today, in the second of two reports, we investigate the flawed response by FEMA - that's the Federal Emergency Management Agency - and uncover a trove of internal documents that reveal how the agency's shortcomings stymied the island's recovery. NPR's Laura Sullivan begins our story in the skies above Puerto Rico a month after the hurricane.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Four weeks after Maria hit Puerto Rico, I hitched a ride with Army Three-Star General Jeffrey Buchanan as he hopscotched from town to town along the northeast coast. From the helicopter, the devastation was unrelenting. Thousands of powerlines snapped like matchsticks. Every other home seemed to be missing a roof or even walls. As the helicopter touched down in the town of Ceiba, Buchanan set out on foot. It was clear the federal effort was already having problems.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
SULLIVAN: A month in, when people are usually beginning to rebuild and recover, the Army was on a soccer field still delivering basic emergency supplies like food and water.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There you go. There you go. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Don't leave me hanging - OK, got one.
SULLIVAN: General Buchanan met up with FEMA's regional director, Thomas Von Essen, at the town relief center where they found Ceiba's mayor, Angelo Cruz.
ANGELO CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SULLIVAN: Cruz tells him that he's down to his last pallet of rice and desperately needs a generator to open the local hospital. Buchanan and Von Essen tell him not to worry. Generators are coming, they say. Help is coming.
THOMAS VON ESSEN: Tell him we're not pulling anything.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
VON ESSEN: We're still distributing as many commodities as we can. We're still flowing commodities in.
SULLIVAN: Von Essen said they had as many as 500 generators on the island before the storm. The men said within days, thousands of residents would get new plastic roofs. Buchanan said 500,000 tarps would be handed out.
LT GEN JEFFREY BUCHANAN: There are 500,000 more blue tarps, the small ones, coming in over the next week. So these will all get pushed to all the mayors.
SULLIVAN: The problem was it wasn't true. What most people know by now is that none of that happened, and millions of people sat in the dark for months, many struggling without food or water. NPR and "FRONTLINE" got an inside look at what was behind the problems, obtaining hundreds of pages of internal documents and emails. What they show is a government relief agency in chaos struggling with key contracts, basic supplies and its own workforce.
FEMA never had 500 generators on the island before the storm. It had 25. Its plastic roof program was out of plastic, and the most tarps FEMA ever produced was 125,000 months after people needed them. In an interview, FEMA federal coordinating officer for Maria, Michael Byrne, said the agency was stretched thin by multiple storms and that Puerto Rico's island geography was a challenge after a Category 4 hurricane.
MICHAEL BYRNE: If there's a villain here - OK? - if there's a thing, it's the 190-mile-an-hour winds and the 50 inches of rain. That's the villain. That's what did the damage to the people. We've done nothing but try to remedy that.
SULLIVAN: For as much as FEMA and the Army Corps may have tried, as we traveled across the island in the months that followed, it was clear things weren't working the way they were supposed to. At a relief center, the mayor of Luquillo, Jesus Rodriguez, told me he asked FEMA for seven generators to turn on the town's water, but he couldn't understand what could hold up such a critical request.
JESUS RODRIGUEZ: Told me that - they say they are working on it.
SULLIVAN: How long have they been working on it?
RODRIGUEZ: Two months.
SULLIVAN: Two months?
SULLIVAN: And that's the most important thing for you right now, is water.
RODRIGUEZ: That's right, water. Water is life.
SULLIVAN: In Pinones, pastor William Torruella also had questions. He and his congregation have been gathering supplies on their own to deliver to nearby towns.
WILLIAM TORRUELLA: I saw when FEMA arrived in Morovis. I was there. The reason that they gave for getting there so late - it was because the roads were closed. They were not closed. I've been going there...
TORRUELLA: ...For two months. So the excuses do not explain what's happening.
SULLIVAN: Even an international disaster worker was confused. I ran into Alice Thomas with Refugees International in Yabucoa as she checked on survivors.
ALICE THOMAS: We were pretty surprised to see how slow the response was compared especially to major emergencies I've seen in foreign countries. For me, the Philippines comes to mind.
SULLIVAN: The response here was slower...
SULLIVAN: ...Than it was in the Philippines.
THOMAS: After Haiyan, yeah.
THOMAS: And here, we couldn't get over particularly how bad the shelter response was. And that was something we really were focusing on.
SULLIVAN: Thomas says you've got to get tarps to people in the first week or two if you want to save their homes.
THOMAS: If you can get access to a community, you're bringing tarps.
SULLIVAN: Why could the U.S. government not get that done here in Puerto Rico, in the United States of America?
THOMAS: I have - I do not know. According to people who were working on the ground the whole time, they said, quote, unquote, "the whole tarpaulin thing is a mystery."
SULLIVAN: A mystery.
THOMAS: A mystery. Why they couldn't distribute tarps I do not know.
SULLIVAN: I asked FEMA's Michael Byrne. He said it was difficult to get supplies to Puerto Rico because it's an island.
BYRNE: We had problems getting everything when you have to ship it, when you have to add seven days to - or sometimes longer to everything that you want to bring in. And so it is - yeah, it's definitely a challenge.
SULLIVAN: Yet there weren't reports of these logistical problems when Hurricane Georges hit 20 years ago. And the agency's records tell a different story. According to documents, the problems appear to be twofold. The agency did not preposition enough supplies on the island before the storm like it was supposed to. The day Maria hit, it had less than 12,000 tarps. Then FEMA scrambled to find a company to supply them. That didn't go well.
First, records show FEMA hired a company that was two months old. It didn't provide a single tarp. Then FEMA chose a company whose last contract was for $4,000 worth of kitchen utensils for a prison. It didn't produce a single tarp either. Finally, FEMA turned to a third company called Master Group. Its specialty - importing hookah tobacco. It produced some tarps, but when employees examined them in a warehouse in January, FEMA says they failed an inspection.
NPR and "FRONTLINE" looked at import records and discovered the company brought the tarps in from China, which seemed to violate federal contracting rules. After NPR and "FRONTLINE" questioned FEMA about this, the agency suspended the company. FEMA's Michael Byrne.
BYRNE: We do a lot of contracting. If we had 2,000 contracts, we had a couple of ones that didn't work out well. And we dealt with it, OK? The...
SULLIVAN: But these are the tarp contracts. This is FEMA providing tarps after a disaster. How are you not frustrated by that?
BYRNE: I'm frustrated by everything that the disaster brings. And I continue focus on getting it solved.
SULLIVAN: Behind the scenes, though, some federal workers were discouraged. In one email, a top Army Corps official complained to FEMA managers, we cannot survive any longer with any delay of materials. I cannot keep saying we are trying. I need solutions. Without tarps, the Army Corps' plastic roof program became even more critical. It's called blue roofs. It's basically stronger tarps that are strapped down to houses. But FEMA didn't have enough plastic sheeting on the island. In the first month after Hurricane Irma in Florida, the Army Corps says it put up 4,500 blue roofs - in Puerto Rico, just 439. Lieutenant General Todd Semonite oversees the Army Corps. He says without supplies, they were in limbo.
LT GEN TODD SEMONITE: It goes back to, how much material do you have? Almost all the warehouses were empty, so when we hit, the amount of available supplies - either generators, blue roof material or whatever it might be - were just not there to be able to respond in an effort that would've probably been something that could've got us more of a jumpstart.
SULLIVAN: As for getting the lights on, while there was controversy about Puerto Rico hiring a company called Whitefish which had no experience restoring power grids, few knew that the federal government had done the same thing. Federal officials chose a company, Fluor, with global experience building power plants but no experience putting power grids back together. Government sources said they went with a trusted company but described weeks of delays as the company got up to speed. But that wasn't all that was causing FEMA headaches. FEMA was struggling with its own staff. One internal document shows that more than a quarter of the staff was untrained and another quarter was, quote, "unqualified." So I asked Byrne...
You got a blue roof program that's months behind. You've got hundreds of thousands of tarps that never arrived. You've got a power restoration company that has no experience restoring power. You've got materials stuck on docks in Florida and Puerto Rico. You've got a quarter of your workforce unqualified. How is any of this OK?
BYRNE: In the way you phrased that, I don't think I - first of all, I don't agree with all of your characterizations of the situation in that I think we've done a lot of support. How can you look at the fact that we gave a billion dollars in assistance out, that we've given out 62 million liters of water, 52 million meals to the people - how can you categorize that as not providing assistance? I find that it doesn't connect.
SULLIVAN: Because at the end of the day, you have 3 1/2 million Americans who spent months in the dark, sometimes without water. Is this really the best that FEMA can do?
BYRNE: You found a number of places where we weren't perfect. I'll accept that. Bring it on, OK? I'm going to keep working to get better.
SULLIVAN: On one of my final trips to Puerto Rico, I came across a neighborhood called Villa Hugo. I saw a man 20 feet off the ground in an old, rusted bucket truck.
OSCAR CARRION: (Speaking Spanish).
SULLIVAN: His name was Oscar Carrion, and he was pulling wires off a power pole. He wasn't wearing gloves or safety equipment. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was turning the lights back on. He had already restored power to 3,000 people in the neighborhood.
CARRION: (Through interpreter) I'm afraid of heights. I'm afraid of getting shocked. The first time I got up there, I was trembling all over. I still do.
SULLIVAN: Carrion owns a grocery and has four kids. He had never been up a power pole in his life. But he says after staring at the mangled lines for months, he decided to see if he could fix them himself. The neighbors took up a collection and bought the truck for $2,500. On this day, they unwound wire along the street as Carrion worked pole to pole.
Why do you get up there and put your life on the line for this?
CARRION: (Through interpreter) I don't want to risk my life, but I guess I am. It's difficult to live in the dark. It's hard. And we were tired of hearing that they can't get to us, they're not coming. So we just decided to move forward on our own.
SULLIVAN: As he got back into the truck, he paused and looked at me. He said, if we don't do it, nobody will do it for us. More than 90,000 Americans are still without power in Puerto Rico. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "FLUX AND METER")
CORNISH: The full documentary of our investigation into the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the financial storm that left the island without a lifeline, "Blackout In Puerto Rico," airs tonight on "FRONTLINE." You can see it on your local PBS station.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.