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Legal, journalistic organizations sue FEMA over Hurricane Maria response records

By on July 31, 2018

SAN JUAN — Nonprofit legal organization Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico and civil rights advocacy nonprofit LatinoJustice against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over requests for records detailing the agency’s Puerto Rico disaster response.

The groups said their requests, made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), were submitted nearly six months, but the agency has yet to release records relating to FEMA’s “preparation for and response to Hurricane Maria,” according to a news release.

“FEMA has tried to escape accountability, dismissing our information requests for nearly six months now and trying to ignore our FOIA petitions. That agency is in part responsible for the slow and ineffective recovery process that we have documented and that people have experienced in Puerto Rico, and we want to discover why. Why is it that housing assistance has been denied to so many people on the Island? Which are the towns with more denials? What is the demographic, racial and gender profile of those who have requested assistance and have not received it?

“These are only some of the unanswered questions that FEMA has to address. That is the purpose of this lawsuit,” said Carla Minet, executive director for the Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit that trains journalists and has a legal program to help it in its objective of “working for freedom of information in Puerto Rico.”

The administration has not provided any records, they said, “even though the deadline to do so has long since passed,” in violating of FOIA, they said..

“The lack of transparency or release of basic information about a disaster that killed thousands and harmed millions is part of a larger continuum of negligence by the federal government, particularly FEMA. Puerto Ricans have a right to access information concerning how the agency prepared for, responded to and assisted the island after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history,” Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, associate counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, added.

President Donald J. Trump discusses hurricane relief efforts with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló during a meeting at Muñiz Air National Guard Base in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt Michelle Y. Alvarez-Rea)

Latino Justice said public remarks by President Trump “cast doubt on the seriousness with which the Administration approached its emergency relief duties in Puerto Rico and underscore the need for additional transparency and scrutiny.”

The advocacy group also made reference to a FEMA report that concluded it could have better anticipated the hurricane season’s challenges. Democracy Forward Litigation Director Javier Guzmán added that “the scant information FEMA has so far released detailing the extent of its role in disaster relief stops far short of transparency requirements,” but the “millions of Americans in Puerto Rico deserve to understand precisely how the federal government responded.”

This is FEMA’s second Maria-related lawsuit. A hearing Wednesday will address one filed seeking an extension of temporary housing and further assistance for Puerto Ricans who remain in hotels in the aftermath of the historic hurricane.

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