FEMA dodges questions about Puerto Rico’s reported food shortages

Efrain Diaz Figueroa drinks coffee while he walks next to the remains of the house of his sister destroyed by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

U.S. officials have privately acknowledged that Puerto Rico is facing a massive food shortage amid an escalating humanitarian crisis, a new report claims. The news comes as the island continues to face staggering water and power shortages and growing anger among its citizens that the U.S. government has not done enough.

Officials working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) say that only 200,000 meals per day are being provided by the government, according to the Guardian. That small allotment is meant to feed more than 2 million people, with many of the meals made in a “military ready-to-eat” style that can be challenging to digest over an extended period of time, the publication reported. According to the disaster-relief nonprofit World Central Kitchen, the organization’s agreement with FEMA expired on Tuesday, ending the mere 20,000 meals per day it had been supplying, which was outlined in its contract.

It could be weeks before a new contract materializes, part of the federal rules FEMA insists it must follow. Some say that slowness is being exacerbated by a lack of preparedness, as much as by apathy.

“There is no urgency in the government response to this humanitarian crisis. They have all the officials and armed guards at headquarters, but they have no information about the island,” World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés told the Guardian. “They don’t even have a map they can share about who needs food. FEMA is over-paying and it is under-delivering.”

Officials from FEMA declined to comment on the issue to ThinkProgress, suggesting only that the FEMA website provides all the information necessary on the topic. While no acknowledgement of food shortages appears anywhere on the site, FEMA does claim that it has given out “millions of meals and millions of liters of water” to Puerto Ricans since the crisis began.

No further specifics were given.

FEMA has come under fire for its handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico, which began three weeks ago after a Category 4 hurricane slammed into the island. More than 20 days later, at least 45 people are dead and more than 110 remain unaccounted for. Those who survived the hurricane are grappling with an increasingly dire situation. Around 89 percent of the island is without power and nearly half lack cell phone access.

Power and food shortages are far from the only issues plaguing Puerto Ricans. Medicine is in short supply and hospitals are overflowing with patients, some of whom arrived from the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma. Puerto Ricans disproportionately suffer from high rates of kidney failure and demands for dialysis have plagued hospitals, many of which are struggling to find power. Other issues, like conjunctivitis (better known as “pinkeye”) caused by a lack of access to water and basic hygiene, are further exacerbating the situation.

Leptospirosis, which is caused by the spread of urine in things like water, has also killed at least two people. The water itself poses a broader issue; only 64 percent of the island had access to potable water as of Wednesday.

Much of that data has become available due to, a website set up by the Puerto Rican government. Numbers were initially reported by directly by FEMA but much of the agency’s available data on the crisis in Puerto Rico disappeared from the agency’s website last Thursday amid a firestorm of criticism aimed at President Donald Trump. That timing seemed pointed: while the president has repeatedly lauded his administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico, the White House has received low approval ratings over its handling of the crisis. During a trip to the island last week, Trump pointed to Puerto Rico’s debt and the high cost of relief efforts, rather than elevating the concerns facing Puerto Ricans.

Two days later, all data vanished from FEMA’s site, returning only after outcry.

“To avoid any further confusion, this information will be posted on our Hurricane Maria website going forward,” a statement from the agency read, “and will include a link to the Government of Puerto Rico website.”

Pressure on the government has resulted in some additional relief effort funding. Concerns over the safety of restored drinking water arose after Puerto Rico’s EPA director, Carmen Guerrero, advised residents to take extra precautions. “Right now, we recommend that all water used for drinking, brushing teeth, cooking, or washing dishes be boiled,” Guerrero said, according to El Nuevo Dia.

The comments sparked panic, leading FEMA to authorize $70 million in additional funding to Puerto Rico’s water authority.