Puerto Rican government officials resorted to mass finger-pointing after CBS News recently reported that thousands of water bottles were abandoned on the taxiway of a naval base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.
In a Facebook post written in Spanish, Thomas Rivera Schatz, Puerto Rico’s Senate president, called out Wanda Vázquez, the island’s secretary of the Department of Justice.
"The discovery of a shipment of boxes containing potable water going to waste out in the open on Ceiba’s naval base possibly did not even provoke an investigation from the Department of Justice,” Rivera Schatz wrote on his Facebook page.
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The Senate president also said it's necessary for someone to file a complaint regarding the incident.
"We are waiting for the great explanation ‘someone’ will offer, in some moment, that will justify everything,” he continued.
Viral images on social media show hundreds of boxes of water abandoned outside at the naval base Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba.
Following Hurricane Maria’s landfall last September, many residents were left without clean drinking water for weeks.
After falsely counting the death toll in the wake of the hurricane as 64, the government has since acknowledged the storm caused the deaths of almost 3,000 people on the island.
Clinicians linked 26 of those deaths to leptospirosis, a bacterial illness spread through contaminated water and soil, according to an investigative piece by CNN and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. That’s double the amount of deaths the illness caused in Puerto Rico in 2016.
As peak hurricane season approaches, Rivera Schatz said Puerto Ricans are once again preparing for the worst.
“This week, the people have massively resorted to buying potable water before the possible passage of a tropical storm that could become a hurricane, while there [on the naval base] waste thousand and thousands of bottles of water," the Senator leader added. "It is a real shame that this is occurring."
Puerto Rico’s Administrator of the General Services Administration, Ottmar Chávez, and Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera offered explanations about the situation.
“The Federal Agency for Emergency Management reported that it had an excess of bottled water in April 2018, and GSA made an application to take custody that was approved and executed upon in May 2018 through the U.S. GSA Surplus Property program,” Chávez explained during a press conference.
In total, the administration requested about 20,000 pallets of the undistributed excess water, according to a press release written by a spokesperson for the Puerto Rican government.
“GSA took control of the inventory in May 2018 before I took over the agency's functions,” Chávez added. “Deliveries to two municipalities and the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Puerto Rico began that same month and continued through August 2018.”
Chávez said that after his agency delivered more than 700 pallets, recipients from the municipality of Barceloneta and the Corporation for Public Dissemination began sending complaints regarding the water’s smell and taste.
“Based on those complaints, we contacted FEMA to return the water to the federal GSA inventory,” the GSA administrator continued. “The secretary of the [Department of Public Safety] specified that, based on the compiled documentation, in no moment during the digital communication about the surplus water was it evident that the bottled water was spoiled.”
The DPS secretary further highlighted the island government’s lack of information regarding how FEMA stored and distributed the water.
“When GSA performed its merchandise survey, U.S. GSA photographs appeared to show bottled water in a warehouse,” Pesquera said. “We do not know when FEMA moved the inventory to the Roosevelt Roads Base in Ceiba.”
The secretary of DPS further explained that “the Government of Puerto Rico never received the water from FEMA for distribution during the emergency, and it was not until April 2018 that we were notified of its availability.”
Chávez has ordered an administrative investigation to analyze the internal processes associated with this matter and to discuss possible follow-up measures.
In a Facebook Live video, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello also questioned FEMA’s handling of the water and the distribution delay.
“If we had the water supply available since January, why was it not declared until months later, when the bottles of water could possibly be contaminated due to having them exposed outside of a warehouse for so long?” he asked. “The question is should these containers have been kept in some sort of warehouse or storage facility and if they distributed potentially contaminated water?”
Ultimately, the governor believes FEMA is responsible for causing the water to possibly spoil.
“I demand answers from FEMA, because the evidence establishes that this was water that belonged to FEMA, and they left out in the open for so long and did not make it available to those who needed it until a few months later,” Rosselo said. “I guarantee to the public of Puerto Rico that we are in a constant investigation of these events and there will be significant consequences.”
FEMA Spokesperson Lenisha Smith responded to Rosselo’s claims by saying the decision to store the water at the naval base aligned with the agency’s goal of providing “the maximum support to disaster survivors, while also being mindful of our responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Smith claimed placing the water on the tarmac resulted in “millions of dollars of savings.”
“FEMA announced that the water would be available to any agency that needed it, and placed the water at the taxiway of Roosevelt Roads where it could be stored in an area that was free and secure,” Smith wrote in the statement. “The P.R. General Services Administration showed interest in this inventory and requested that it be transferred. Once the transfer of water took place, the water became property of the government of Puerto Rico.”