For more than a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not respond to repeated texts and emails asking for generator fuel to refrigerate perishable food at supermarkets and chain stores. As a result, Walmart and other retailers had to throw away tens of thousands of dollars worth of meat, produce and dairy, as residents of the island stood hungry in lines outside the markets.
Emails and texts were released yesterday (March 20) in a letter written by Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Stacey Plaskett, the House delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The letter, which included selected texts and emails between Walmart and Puerto Rican elected officials, also reiterated a request for a subpoena to force the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to produce documents related to FEMA’s post-Maria disaster response. The initial request for documents was sent in October and, per yesterday’s letter, not a "single email relating to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico" has been produced.
The Category Four hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20. It knocked out the island’s eletrical grid, leading to a total blackout. According to The Washington Post:
Two days after the hurricane, a senior Walmart official emailed Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., to ask for help keeping food refrigerated in the few stores they had been able to get up and running.
“The problem is we’re running out of generator fuel and need help getting the governor’s approval for me,” the Walmart official wrote. “Have you guys been in touch with anyone from FEMA that we can contact to help? We want to keep this food fresh for people.”
Within an hour of when the email was sent, a Puerto Rican government official passed the message directly to a FEMA representative. One week later—a week in which Walmart officials sent more emails and texts prioritizing which of the 46 stores needed fuel most and made it clear that they were within 24 hours of running out of power completely at all locations—there was still no response.
The Post reports that at this point, “A Puerto Rican government official informed FEMA officials in an email that ‘because of immediate threat to public health and safety, the governor asked John Rabin (FEMA’s acting regional administrator for region two) at 8:10 a.m. this morning to have FEMA deliver fuel to all grocery and large retail immediately.’” There is no confirmation that there was a response from FEMA.
Manuel Reyes, the executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Marketing, Industry and Distribution of Food, told The Associated Press, “Since the beginning, we made the local and federal governments aware of this, but as far as we know FEMA did not provide fuel or made trucks available to the private food distribution network. We believe they did provide some fuel to hospitals. We were forced to establish our own distribution system for our members using retrofitted waste-water trucks in order to keep some stores opened and food from going bad.”
A FEMA spokesperson responded on Tuesday (March 20) via an email to The Associated Press, saying the agency was aware of the letter and was continuing to work with the committee.
In the months since the hurricane, FEMA has also been criticized for failing to deliver tarps for homeless residents or to distribute millions of meals across the island. It is not confirmed how much food Walmart had to throw away, but supermarkets reported their losses to be worth tens of thousands of dollars.