01/31/2018 06:46 pm ET

FEMA Now Says It's Not Ending Aid For Puerto Rico Hurricane Survivors

The agency gave unclear and at times contradictory statements about aid over the past two days as outrage grew in the wake of an NPR report.
A U.S. Army soldier tosses bottled water, provided by FEMA, to be passed on to residents in a neighborhood without grid elect
Mario Tama via Getty Images
A U.S. Army soldier tosses bottled water, provided by FEMA, to be passed on to residents in a neighborhood without grid electricity or running water in Puerto Rico on Oct. 17.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said Wednesday the agency was not cutting off aid to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, walking back statements one of their officials made in an incendiary NPR report on Monday. 

In an interview with the outlet, a FEMA official said that food and water provisions to the island would “officially shut off” on Wednesday. But following an ensuing public outcry, which included Puerto Rican officials, the agency released a statement on Wednesday saying there was never a decision made to end aid to the island. 

“FEMA and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are not stopping the provision of commodities after Hurricane Maria,” FEMA Public Affairs Director William Booher confirmed in the statement to HuffPost. “FEMA and the Commonwealth will continue to provide commodities to voluntary organizations and local officials who still have a need.” 

“There is no decision to stop distribution of commodities,” the statement continued. “As progress continues from response to recovery across the island, we will continue to support the needs of survivors supporting the government of Puerto Rico.”

Booher told The New York Times on Wednesday that the Jan. 31 deadline was mistakenly publicized by the agency in the NPR interview. The date, he said, actually marked an internal planning date to evaluate if the U.S. territory still needed aid.

Booher also reiterated that the “aid is not stopping” and insisted the agency was not backtracking on a decision. FEMA’s newest statement, however, comes after two days of widespread backlash. 

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz slammed FEMA over the possibility of ending aid to Puerto Rico at the Latino Victory Summit on Tuesday. Cruz pointed to citizens on the island who still have no power, no water and no financial stability. Nearly 30 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority subscribers are still without electricity as of Wednesday, according to government data. 

Booher’s statement to the Times on Wednesday echoed what FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues told HuffPost the day before.

He said the information the FEMA official provided NPR was not false but also “not completely accurate.”

“Nothing is changing on the 31st,” Llargues told HuffPost on Tuesday. “If it’s changing in days or weeks to come, it’s because it has been requested with local officials”

“Some municipalities don’t need it any longer,” he continued. “Some that don’t have running water or power, we’ll continue to supply commodities to them, always in coordination with state and local officials.”

In a somewhat unclear statement to HuffPost on Tuesday, the agency said both that “FEMA provided commodities are no longer needed for emergency operations” and that “FEMA will continue to support any identified needs.”

“The commercial supply chain for food and water is re-established and private suppliers are sufficiently available that FEMA provided commodities are no longer needed for emergency operations,” Booher said in the Tuesday statement. “FEMA will continue to support the Government of Puerto Rico to meet the needs they identify.” 

“FEMA will continue to support any identified needs and will provide supplies to volunteer agencies and other private non-profit organizations who are working with households in rural, outlying areas to address ongoing disaster related needs as power and water is gradually restored,” he added.

FEMA’s Wednesday statement does not explicitly say whether there will be any changes in distribution or quantity of aid for the island. 

State Coordinating Officer and Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera released a statement on Wednesday addressing what occurred after initial reports said FEMA would end aid to the island. 

“We immediately established communication with FEMA’s operations coordinator for Puerto Rico, Mike Byrne, to clarify the situation,” he said in statement to HuffPost. “After the conversation, both teams agreed that at no time had it been agreed upon to begin the transfer of FEMA’s responsibilities to the Government of Puerto Rico as part of the transition process from the response phase to the recovery phase.” 

“We are confident that FEMA will continue to provide the help that is necessary,” he continued. “Agreements between the federal government and the local government are focused on supporting the people who remain in need after Hurricane Maria.” 

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman contributed to this report.