A number of agencies lacked immediate answers after photos of the water intended for Hurricane Maria survivors spread across a tarmac in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, went viral on Tuesday. Marty Bahamonde, director of disaster operations for FEMA’s Office of External Affairs, told CBS on Thursday that FEMA moved the bottled water outdoors in January as a cost-cutting measure.
“As the water started to come back through the regular water system, and that started to increase, 90, 95 percent of people had water in their homes, there was less and less of a demand for the bottled water that was on the island,” Bahamonde told CBS.
FEMA confirmed to HuffPost in a statement that it moved the bottled water to save money as a part of its effort to provide “the maximum support to disaster survivors, while also being mindful of our responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Bahamonde claimed FEMA began moving the water in January because the agency was storing more than 1,100 containers on the island at a cost of about $300,000 per day. FEMA then told the Puerto Rican government in April that it had an excess of supplies and began accepting requests from local agencies to take that surplus off its hands.
Ottmar Chávez, head of Puerto Rico’s General Services Administration (ASG), told HuffPost his agency requested 20,000 pallets of water from FEMA in May. After distributing about 700 of that amount, the agency “received several complaints about the smell and taste of the water.”
The water was undrinkable after months outside in the heat and sun.
Chávez said in his statement that the agency plans to “return those waters to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) inventory.” FEMA told HuffPost in a statement that after the ASG requested and accepted the bottles, “the water became property of the government of Puerto Rico.”
It is unclear what will happen to the water now, though FEMA’s statement said it is in the process of developing a plan to inspect and dispose of any water that is undrinkable.
“FEMA put that water out on that airstrip for the purpose of getting it out of containers, so that there would be no cost to us and no cost to the taxpayer,” Bahamonde told CBS. “In hindsight, it saved us tens of millions of dollars.”
FEMA has been stretched thin as the country was ravaged by intense wildfires and hurricanes over the last year. The disaster relief agency is currently preparing for a response to Hurricane Florence as the storm is expected to cause massive flooding in the Carolinas.
President Donald Trump’s administration transferred nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this year to fund immigrant detention and deportation efforts, according to a document released Tuesday by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton denied that the $10 million was taken from disaster relief, claiming Merkley’s accusation was a “sorry attempt to push a false agenda at a time when the administration is focused on assisting millions on the East Coast facing a catastrophic disaster.”
The document released by Merkley, which was supplied to HuffPost, states that more than $2.3 million from a total of about $9.8 million had been diverted from FEMA’s “response and recovery” budget. Other funding was transferred from regional operations, mitigation efforts, preparedness and protection, and mission support budgets.
This story has been updated with a statement from FEMA.