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Boys carry water away from an HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after soldiers working with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division's "Dustoff" unit dropped off relief supplies during recovery efforts in October following Hurricane Maria, in Jayuya, Puerto Rico. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

After mixed messaging, FEMA clarifies it will not end aid to Puerto Rico

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Wednesday that it will not stop its provision of supplies to Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans are still recovering from Hurricane Maria’s landfall nearly four months ago.

The announcement came after mounting criticism from lawmakers from both political parties responded to early reports that the agency would cut off food and water deliveries to the island.

NPR first reported on Tuesday that FEMA planned to halt its shipment of food and water supplies on Jan. 31 and that it would transfer the responsibilities of distributing remaining supplies already on the island to the Puerto Rican government, a move that the island’s officials were not made aware of.

FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico, Alejandro De La Campa, told NPR that emergency food and water supplies were no longer needed as supermarkets reopen and businesses recover.

But on Wednesday morning, FEMA public affairs director William Booher told the Associated Press that a decision on a date for when deliveries would be cut off had not yet been made and that officials had “mistakenly made the date public” to NPR.

Even as the agency believes the situation in Puerto Rico has improved and is working toward transitioning from immediate response plans to long-term recovery efforts, Booher confirmed in a statement to the NewsHour that FEMA would not stop its distribution of supplies to volunteer agencies and local officials who still have a need.

“Most grocery stores are open and accessible, transportation systems are operable, and gasoline stations are operable, as are banks and ATM machines,” the agency said in an email to the NewsHour.

However, many Puerto Ricans, particularly those living in rural areas, are still reeling from the damages caused by Hurricane Maria nearly four months ago. As of last week, roughly half a million customers continued without power and some still don’t have access to running water.

The outcry from lawmakers denouncing FEMA’s plans to cut off aid earlier this week brought attention to the needs that remain on the island.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., denounced the decision and urged the administration to continue providing supplies to Puerto Rico.

“Cutting this aid to the people of Puerto Rico, almost a third of them who still do not have electricity, it’s unconscionable, a travesty” he said in a Senate speech on Tuesday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who along with Nelson is pushing for legislation to bring more aid to Puerto Rico and Florida, also disagreed with FEMA’s plans.

“There are still a lot of people that wonder why are we giving foreign aid to Puerto Rico,” Rubio said. “You have to remind them, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and its residents are U.S. citizens.”

In his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Donald Trump told Puerto Rico and other areas ravaged by a destructive 2017 hurricane season that “we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together.”

While President Trump and FEMA have been criticized for slow disaster relief in Puerto Rico, FEMA reports it has provided the island with more than $1.6 billion worth of food and $361 million worth of water, and that roughly 5,000 personnel are currently on the island.

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