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FEMA has been deleting facts about Puerto Rico from its website

by Alexa Liautaud and Alex Lubben
Oct 11 2017, 6:29pm

FEMA has been changing the statistics shown on its Hurricane Maria recovery page in a way that makes it difficult to consistently track the progress of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Three weeks after the storm hit the island, many Puerto Ricans still don’t have access to basic necessities, like electricity and clean water.

On Oct. 4, data on how many Puerto Ricans had access to power and clean water were available on FEMA’s website — but the next day, they weren’t. On Oct. 4, they showed data on how many hospitals were connected to the power grid. That information was scrubbed from their page the next day and, as of this writing, was still not available.

The adding and removing of statistics on the FEMA website obscures the status of recovery efforts on the island. Their website has painted a picture of the recovery effort that tracks with President Donald Trump’s comments about the rosy recovery he claims is taking place in Puerto Rico.

“I have no idea what and why they do what they do on the website anymore,” former FEMA Chief Craig Fugate told VICE News in an email.

In its defense, FEMA says the information on its website is publicly available elsewhere, including on status.pr, a site where updates are presented in Spanish. A spokesperson for FEMA told VICE News that its website is not the only source of updates, and that press conference, news releases, and social media are all ways in which data on the status of Puerto Rico’s recovery is conveyed to the public.

But the spokesperson did not provide an explanation for why the statistics were deleted in the first place. But the internet never forgets, and those changes were subsequently compiled in a report by the Environmental Data and Government Initiative, an organization dedicated to monitoring federal agency websites and archiving government data.

Here’s a timeline of those changes:

Water

October 4

On Oct. 4, the section on FEMA’s website describing efforts to help water access included statistics describing what percentage of Puerto Rico’s population had access to clean drinking water — a key metric of the island’s recovery.

October 5

On Oct. 5, that statistic had been removed, and the page was wiped of any information directly quantifying how many Puerto Ricans had access to drinking clean water. FEMA did leave public one data point about wastewater treatment plants, but even that was edited. Instead of showing how many treatment plants were operational, FEMA opted to tally how many were working on generator power, and it is unclear how the two compare.

October 7

By Oct. 7, the statistic describing water access was back — only this time it was listed under a different subhead.

Electricity

October 4

On Oct. 4, FEMA listed statistics on progress made on the island’s access to electricity, noting that only 5.4 percent of Puerto Rico was connected to the power grid.

October 5

On Oct. 5, those statistics vanished. All details related to power access, including the statistic on open gas stations, had been removed.

October 7

On Oct. 7, following criticism from news outlets, the section was replaced, with the update that 9.2 percent of Puerto Ricans were now connected to the grid.

Hospitals

October 4

On Oct. 4, the FEMA website showed data on what percentage of hospitals were open, and how many were connected to the electrical grid. The data was hard to parse; it did not clearly indicate whether hospitals that were open were connected to the power grid or merely using power from generators. The data also left unclear whether hospitals listed as “open”were fully operational with access to electricity.

October 5

The following day, the information on the share of hospitals connected to the grid had been removed from the page. Making matters worse, a math error was introduced: Sixty four of 68 hospitals is 94 percent — not 92 percent.

October 7

FEMA did not make any changes except to update the data.

Days later, the FEMA website page on recovery efforts was updated, but didn’t include any data on the percentage of hospitals that had access to the power grid.

San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, has repeatedly issued calls for help about hospitals lacking access to power, and publicly accused FEMA of ignoring her pleas. She wasn’t wrong — FEMA Administrator Brock Long later confirmed that he is, in fact, ignoring her, dismissing her calls as “political noise.”

But three weeks after the storm made landfall, nearly 90 percent of the island remains without electricity, and 35 percent lack access to clean drinking water, according to local authorities.

The Washington Post first reported on the agency’s myriad omissions and inconsistencies on Oct. 6, prompting FEMA to reinstate some of the data that had previously appeared on their government page.

It’s not the first time the Trump administration has axed data from government websites. In May, a researcher from George Washington University told the Washington Post that data relating to how climate change is affecting public lands — data that he had been relying on for his research — had been scrubbed from the Bureau of Land Management’s website.

And though Trump has portrayed a rosy picture of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, over two weeks have passed since Hurricane Maria hit, and the island is still crippled by downed power lines, a stretched healthcare system, and many roads remain inaccessible, barring aid from reaching rural areas.