FEMA stresses it's not leaving Puerto Rico

Many Puerto Ricans still waiting on relief

By LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN
Fred Rasmussen

Roofs ripped off houses in San Juan, Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria slammed into the city on September 20, 2017.

(CNN) - Puerto Ricans were alarmed this week to hear that the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to halt new shipments of food and water to the island -- and some assumed that meant FEMA was going to stop providing aid.

"Seriously, are they leaving?" San Juan Mayor Yulin Cruz asked on Twitter on Tuesday.

But FEMA was not planning to leave, nor stop handing out crucial supplies, the agency stressed. Distribution of its stockpiled 46 million liters of water and four million meals and snacks will continue on the island. The agency believes that amount is sufficient until normalcy returns.

Puerto Rico's Secretary of Public Safety and state coordinating officer Hector Pesquera agreed Wednesday that the commonwealth has sufficient supplies -- though he said the day before that "we were not informed that supplies would stop arriving, nor did the government of Puerto Rico agree with this action."

'The numbers just don't add up'

Meanwhile, many Puerto Ricans are still waiting for relief -- and some are skeptical that FEMA's stockpile will be enough.

"The numbers just don't add up," said Jorge Pratts, a full-time volunteer with Operation Blessing, who oversees the US nonprofit's operations in Puerto Rico. The group has distributed 35,000 water filters since Hurricane Maria hit. Pratts was in the town of Salinas on Wednesday, rebuilding a barber shop destroyed in the storm.

Pratts says he still sees people who are desperately in need of water, even in the capital of San Juan.

"The cry for help comes from fathers and mothers, people in their 60s, 70s and 80s," he said. "It's a very, very delicate situation that we're going through. FEMA is not being sensitive at all, and they're not understanding what's going on here."

'We are still in disaster mode'

Utuado, another mountainous community where Maria wiped out bridges and left communities isolated for weeks, is still very dependent on FEMA's relief aid, the mayor says.

Mayor Ernesto Irizarry says 71% of the 33,000 residents do not have power. More than 30% don't have clean water.

"For now, we have enough supplies," Irizarry said.

The mayor says they have enough supplies to last about another week, and he is confident FEMA will continue to provide supplies. But if FEMA's stockpile on the island runs out, his municipality would likely face a "humanitarian crisis."

"Utuado is not in recovery mode," he said. "We are still in disaster mode because we don't have access to basic services."

He was not able to watch President Donald Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday night because he was meeting with a struggling community in Utuado that still does not have access to clean water. Irizarry wasn't surprised that Trump only mentioned Puerto Rico once in his speech and didn't recount any stories from the island like he mentioned from wildfires in California and Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

"He does not know Utuado," Irizarry said. "They didn't take him to towns like Utuado during his visit. They took him to Guaynabo that will never compare to the devastation in my town."

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