Adrián Florido (NPR) reports that tomorrow, January 31, 2018, marks the end of FEMA’s food and water aid to Puerto Rico:
In the days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, residents of some of the hardest hit rural areas found themselves stranded — cut off from more populated areas by mudslides, crumbled roads and bridges, and toppled trees and power lines. In those early days, the only food and water many of these communities received arrived by helicopter, sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Eventually, towns and villages dug themselves out, but lacking electricity and in many cases running water, their need for emergency food and water persisted. So FEMA has continued providing it, dispensing enormous quantities to the island’s 78 mayors, whose staffs have in turn set up local distributions or gone door to door to deliver the aid. On Wednesday, however, that aid will come to an end.
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.
Some on the island believe it’s too soon to end these deliveries given that a third of residents still lack electricity and, in some places, running water, but FEMA says its internal analytics suggest only about 1 percent of islanders still need emergency food and water. The agency believes that is a small enough number for the Puerto Rican government and nonprofit groups to handle.
“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.
The decision to end the delivery of aid is part of the agency’s broader plan to transition away from the emergency response phase of its work on the island. In the weeks and months to come, the focus will be longer-term recovery. De La Campa said that includes finding ways to jumpstart the island’s troubled economy.
“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.”
To date, FEMA has approved more than $500 million in Maria-related public assistance, though it’s unclear how much of that is slated for local government and nonprofit groups versus direct aid for individuals. The agency has also disbursed an additional $3.2 million in unemployment aid to people whose jobs were affected by the storm.
‘Ours is not so lucky’
But some say Puerto Ricans are not all ready to resume with their normal, pre-hurricane lives. 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. “There are some municipalities that may not need the help anymore, because they’ve got nearly 100 percent of their energy and water back,” she said. “Ours is not so lucky.”
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. She said that has forced families to shift their spending priorities in ways that have made FEMA’s food and water aid a critical lifeline and the expectation that her residents simply resume their normal shopping routines impracticable. “In municipalities like this one, where families are going out to work just to buy gas to run a generator, it becomes very hard,” she said, “because money they would use to buy food they’re instead using to buy fuel.”
The median household income in Morovis is less than $18,000 and 51 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. [. . .]