On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump sat behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, warning residents of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina of an approaching hurricane that has all of the characteristics of, well, a hurricane. “It's tremendously big and tremendously wet, tremendous amounts of water,” he said, before being interrupted by a member of the assembled press.
When asked about his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, the storm that tore through Puerto Rico last year, Trump was effusive in his praise. “The job that FEMA, law enforcement and everybody did working along with the governor was tremendous,” he said. “I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success.” That ‘incredible success’ still resulted in the deaths of between 1,400 and nearly 5,000 US citizens, according to revised estimates.
Now, a damning set of photos from a Puerto Rican police photographer reveals that thousands and thousands—if not millions—of bottles of clean water were never distributed to desperate Puerto Ricans after the hurricane. In fact, the water is apparently still sitting on the same airport runway where it was unloaded last year, partially covered with fraying blue tarps. “Although you do not believe it, almost a million boxes of water that were never delivered to the town before the emergency of Hurricane Maria,” Abdiel Santana captioned his photos of the water on Facebook. “Will there be someone who can explain this?”
In a tweet, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confirmed that it had delivered the water to Ceiba, Puerto Rico last fall. “FEMA says the water—and we’re talking what could be millions of bottles of water—were brought to the island last year,” Begnaud said in a follow-up video. “FEMA tells me the water was turned over to the central government. It’s believed that the water was given to the general services administration. The question is what happened after that? Where was the breakdown? Where was the failure in distribution?”
Those questions deserve answers, but regardless of what kind of declarative sentences might follow, the truth is that the water was supposed to be delivered to an area that desperately could’ve used it. The bigger question might be, “How many deaths or illnesses could’ve been prevented if this clean water had been given to residents?”
This isn’t the first report of a breakdown in distribution or communication in the weeks and months after Hurricane Maria. According to the New York Times, ten trailers filled with food, water, medication, and baby supplies were left to rot outside the offices of the Elections Commission in San Juan. They were discovered in August by reporters from Puerto Rico’s own Radio Isla. The National Guard had worked from those offices as it distributed other donated items, but a spokesperson said that the trailers must have arrived after its troops had left the island.
Maj. Paul Dahlen acknowledged to the Times that those supplies should’ve been “handed out as soon as possible,” but added that he was unsure why another organization hadn’t passed them out last year. A statement was also released explaning that one of the containers was used to store food that was spoiled or past its expiration date; it also insisted that some of the undamaged non-perishable supplies from the other nine containers would be given to nonprofit organizations “in the coming days.”
This is what Trump considered an incredible success, all around.