Puerto Rico's governor begs: "We need equal treatment" from FEMA

FEMA's response to Maria has been a lot worse than its response to continental hurricanes

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 19, 2017 11:05AM (EDT)

Gov. Ricardo Rossello (AP/Stephan Savoia)
Gov. Ricardo Rossello (AP/Stephan Savoia)

The situation in Puerto Rico is getting worse, with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló telling reporters in Washington, "U.S. citizens in Texas, U.S. citizens in Florida, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands: We need equal treatment."

An estimated 45 people have died in the commonwealth, though officials warn that the death toll could be higher by a factor of 10. That's partly due to a worsening water crisis, as unsanitary water has led to bacterial deaths. The electricity situation is also getting worse: fewer Puerto Ricans are receiving power compared to the typical peak load than one week ago.

Roughly 35 percent of the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico lack access to safe drinking water, according to CNN. FEMA has only provided 6.2 million gallons of bottled and bulk water since Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20 — including water delivered to hospitals and dialysis centers. That covers only 9 percent of the commonwealth's current drinking water needs.

In addition, roughly 3 million Puerto Ricans — more than 80 percent of the commonwealth's population — lack access to electrical power. Debris is still strewn throughout the roads, making transportation incredibly difficult even as the island desperately needs to rebuild its infrastructure.

Despite this crisis, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has only deployed 1,700 personnel to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands since they were hit by Hurricane Maria, CNN reported Wednesday. By contrast, nearly 2,600 FEMA personnel were sent to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. FEMA's presence in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands has been supplemented by roughly 20,000 other federal staff and military personnel.

But the Trump administration has not been responsive to complaints from officials, instead complaining that Puerto Ricans aren't helping themselves.

During a press conference on Monday, Trump complained that the military was distributing food in the commonwealth, instead of the local people recovering from the disaster.

"They have to distribute the food to the people of the island. So, what we've done is, we now actually have military distributing food, something that really they shouldn't have to be doing," Trump told reporters.

During the previous week, Trump made it clear that he didn't want to keep FEMA and the military in Puerto Rico "forever."

A week prior to that, after visiting the island, Trump told officials and reporters at a briefing, "I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack. But that's fine."

Later during his visit, Trump implicitly tried to downplay the severity of the Puerto Rico crisis.

"Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like [Hurricane] Katrina, and you look at what happened here, what is your death count?" Trump asked. After an official told him that 16 deaths had been confirmed at that time, Trump shot back, "Sixteen people, verified; 16 versus in the thousands. You can be very proud all of your people, all of our people, 16 versus literally thousands of people, you can be very proud."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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