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FEMA To ‘Officially Shut Off’ Food And Water Aid To Puerto Rico

Coast Guardsmen deliver FEMA supplies to Hurricane Maria-affected areas of Boriquen, Puerto Rico.U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Public Domain

By some estimates, a third of residents still lack electricity and some continue to go without running water.

Following the devastation wrought upon Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria unleashed her fury, the Federal Emergency Management Agency swept in to offer food, water and supplies to residents stranded by downed trees, powerlines, and crumbled roads.

Now, with a third of residents still lacking electricity and some still going without running water, FEMA is pulling the plug on assistance.

In a sign that FEMA believes the immediate humanitarian emergency has subsided, on Jan. 31 it will, in its own words, "officially shut off" the mission it says has provided more than 30 million gallons of potable water and nearly 60 million meals across the island in the four months since the hurricane. The agency will turn its remaining food and water supplies over to the Puerto Rican government to finish distributing.

According to FEMA's internal estimates, only one percent of Puerto Ricans are still in need of emergency food and water, and that is a small enough number to leave the task to local officials.

"The reality is that we just need to look around. Supermarkets are open, and things are going back to normal," said Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA's director in Puerto Rico.

Ending assistance is part of the agency's plan to shift from emergency response to long term economic recovery:

"If we're giving free water and food, that means that families are not going to supermarkets to buy," De La Campa said. "It is affecting the economy of Puerto Rico. So we need to create a balance. With the financial assistance we're providing to families and the municipalities, they're able to go back to the normal economy."

But recovery is not happening at the same rate all over the island, and in places that have yet to see meaningful improvement, FEMA's decision to discontinue aid could have dire effects.

In Morovis, a municipality located in the island's lush, mountainous interior, Mayor Carmen Maldonado said that about 10,000 of her 30,000 residents are still receiving FEMA's food and water rations.
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While the government reports that island-wide, nearly a third of Puerto Rican customers still lack electricity, Maldonado estimated that in her municipality that figure is more like 80 percent.

In an effort to make the transition more smooth, FEMA is handing operations over to the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency, but Maldonado is not convinced PREMA is in a position to handle the challenge:

To date, Maldonado said, she has not gotten any information from PREMA on how to continue receiving food and water rations for her town after the agency assumes responsibility for distributing them on Jan. 31. The mayor said that she did not expect PREMA to distribute the goods fairly or effectively.

PREMA failed to answer questions sent by NPR via multiple emails over more than a week, though a spokeswoman acknowledged receiving the requests.

In an email, FEMA spokeswoman Delyris Aquino-Santiago said the federal agency had "provided guidance to PREMA and developed a contingency plan to support any unmet needs." But she also said that FEMA could not control how the local agency distributes those goods once FEMA turns them over on Jan. 31.