Key people responsible for emergency relief in Puerto Rico are leaving their posts as the island still struggles to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Maria first hit Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian emergency. Today, only 44.5 percent of the population has electricity, and nearly 13 percent of the island still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, according to a site maintained by the governor’s office. The capital of San Juan also had a massive power outage on Thursday, showing the challenges the island continues to face in recovery.
Despite these ongoing challenges, emergency management director Abner Gomez resigned on Friday, and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who leads the military relief effort, will also be reassigned outside the island next week.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello did not give a reason for Gomez’s resignation. Last month, El Nuevo Dia newspaper reported that Gomez went on a two-week vacation less than one month after the hurricane first hit. In his resignation letter, Gomez said the recovery was largely assigned to someone else, and his resignation would make space for the secretary of public safety to create his own team, according to the New York Times.
Buchanan, who arrived in Puerto Rico about one week after Maria made landfall, said Friday that the U.S. military was just in Puerto Rico for the “emergency response.”
“We’ve been transitioning out of the emergency response for the last several weeks,” he told CBS News. “Some areas still need help, but it’s more of a sustained effort, and moving, transitioning into a longer recovery and rebuilding effort.”
Puerto Rican authorities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will now take over by helping to rebuild roads, bridges, and houses, according to Buchanan. “That’s not really what the military is here to do,” he said. “It doesn’t make good sense to keep us for the long term for recovery.”
The government’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico have been widely criticized. It took President Donald Trump eight days to waive the Jones Act, a century-old law that was critics said hindered aid delivery. Nine days after the hurricane first made landfall and just minutes after Trump congratulated himself on his response to the emergency, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said she was “begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying.”
The island has faced serious food and medicine shortages. The water shortage was so severe at one point that some Puerto Ricans were getting their drinking water from hazardous waste “Superfund” sites. For a short time period, FEMA stopped reporting data about access to electricity and water on the island, restoring it only after an outcry. The agency has also avoided questions about food shortages on the island.
Puerto Rico is still struggling with food assistance, especially in comparison to Texas and Florida, due to a congressional budget cap on its food stamp program. On Wednesday, Puerto Rican officials said 472 more people died this September compared to the same time last year. But last month, BuzzFeed reported that the Puerto Rican goverment is allowing funeral homes and crematorium homes to burn the bodies of those who were killed by the hurricane without including them in the official death toll — so we may never know how many deaths Hurricane Maria caused on the island.