Video Reveals Unused Earthquake Aid in Puerto Rico: ‘We Are Outraged’
SAN JUAN — The man streaming on Facebook Live looked straight into his cellphone camera and promised that the footage to come would be outrageous. “Share what you’re about to see,” he urged his viewers.
Moments later, he walked into a huge warehouse and revealed his discovery: cases of bottled water still encased in plastic. Pallets of new diapers, baby formula and wipes. Boxes of wrapped tarpaulins, portable stoves and propane gas.
Unused emergency aid sat gathering dust in a government property in the city of Ponce, in southern Puerto Rico, as thousands of people prepared to spend their third week sleeping outside to stay safe as a swarm of earthquakes continued to assail the island. The water appeared to be expired, the man on the video said. But there were no signs of emergency workers or any effort to distribute the disaster supplies.
The video, streamed Saturday by Lorenzo Delgado Torres, who calls himself “El León Fiscalizador,” or the lion of accountability, immediately exploded on social media. Infuriated Puerto Ricans showed up at the 43,000-square-foot warehouse to demand an explanation, jeer at government officials and take some of the supplies. Someone called police officers, who closed off the street.
Within hours, Gov. Wanda Vázquez, faced with the biggest crisis of her tenure, had fired Puerto Rico’s chief of emergency management, temporarily handed control of the agency to the National Guard and ordered an investigation into why the supplies had not been given to people in need. By Sunday, two more Cabinet officials had been dismissed. The governor pledged not to charge any people who had taken supplies from the warehouse.
By Monday, when the video had amassed more than 800,000 views and 33,000 shares, demonstrators gathered in San Juan, the capital, to protest leaders they said had again let them down in the wake of a natural disaster, as occurred after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“We are outraged,” said Freyla Rivas, 70, of Cayey, who demonstrated on a cobblestone street outside La Fortaleza, the stately governor’s mansion in colonial Old San Juan. “If there are resources, why do the people have to suffer? It’s enraging.”
She wore an orange emergency vest and matching hard hat and held a handwritten sign that read, “Ready for the government earthquake.”
“This is an act of pure evil, to hold back supplies,” said Orlando Rivera, 21, of Toa Alta. “It’s like watching someone dying in front of you and not helping them.”
By late afternoon, a spokesman for the National Guard said service members had delivered some of the unused warehouse supplies to 10 municipalities outside the main quake zone that had not previously received much aid, despite being affected by the temblors. Each truck carried about 12 pallets of supplies, including cots, tarps, stoves and empty plastic water jugs.
As evening fell in San Juan, several hundred people gathered to demand the governor’s resignation and that local officials be held accountable for any wrongdoing. Some demonstrators marched to the Capitol, where another few hundred protesters awaited.
“Where is Wanda?” they chanted. “Wanda is not here. Wanda is hiding the country’s supplies.”
Though the demonstrations remained modest, the angry protests, chants and posts on social media resembled the early demonstrations over the summer that ultimately ousted the former governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló.
Those protests had been ignited by the leak of a private group chat in which the governor and his closest advisers mocked ordinary Puerto Ricans. But the fury quickly came to take in broader discontent over corruption, economic austerity measures and mismanagement, especially over the botched government response to Hurricane Maria, which killed an estimated 3,000 people.
After Maria, a series of incidents pointed to incompetence in the handling of emergency aid. Trailers full of food, water and baby supplies that had been donated for hurricane victims were found left to rot at a government office nearly a year after the storm. By that time, they had become infested by rats. Thousands of unused cases of bottled water laid to waste for months on an unused runway. Donations compiled in Florida rotted away because the Puerto Rican government did not have money to ship them to the island.
To avoid supply shortages and improve distribution lines in the future, Puerto Rico rewrote its emergency plan to establish regional distribution centers. The plan also included stocking two warehouses run by the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency in Guaynabo and Ponce in addition to five warehouses run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Vázquez ordered that the plan be carried out Dec. 28, when the first, smaller tremors began to shake the island. Emergency operations went into full gear after the big, 6.4-magnitude quake hit Jan. 7, directly killing one person and causing upward of $110 million in damage.
But the island’s emergency management agency did not make use of the Ponce warehouse. Carlos Acevedo, the emergency management chief, defended his agency in a statement posted on Twitter on Saturday in which he argued there had been no shortage of quake relief supplies.
Some of the aid in the warehouse had been used during Hurricane Dorian and Tropical Storm Karen in 2019, he said. Water bottles had expired and were in the process of being decommissioned. The rest of the supplies, he indicated, had not yet been necessary — and the building had been declared structurally unsound after the tremors.
Vázquez, however, said she learned only from the video that went viral that the supplies had not been used, against her orders that all available aid be distributed to local mayors and open-air evacuee encampments. It was after the video that the governor fired Acevedo on Saturday.
On Twitter, Puerto Ricans deployed a #WandaRenuncia hashtag (“Wanda Resign”), much as they had with Rosselló. Trying to avoid a similar fate, the governor held a lengthy news conference Sunday at which she appointed Nino Correa the new emergency chief and fired Glorimar Andújar, head of Puerto Rico’s department of children and families. Andújar was unable to provide the governor with information about the supplies available in warehouses that her department runs, the governor said.
Vázquez also fired Fernando Gil Enseñat, the secretary of housing, which also has some warehouses. Gil had lost her trust, she said.
“I am just as outraged as the people are,” she said.
Vázquez insisted that Gil’s departure would not slow the flow of more than $8 billion in delayed recovery funds that Puerto Rico expects soon for hurricane reconstruction. She acknowledged, however, that the warehouse discovery had hurt the island in the eyes of Washington leaders.
President Donald Trump, who has been quick to accuse Puerto Rican leaders of corruption and delayed federal disaster aid to the island after Hurricane Maria, did not immediately weigh in. But his son Donald Trump Jr. linked to an article Sunday and wrote on Twitter, “So Trump was right after all!!! As usual.”
Last week, the Trump administration imposed new restrictions on emergency aid to Puerto Rico. On Sunday, Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, wrote on Twitter that the warehouse news out of Puerto Rico was “disturbing, to say the least.”
“In order for healing to begin, the corruption must end,” he wrote. “This further underscores the importance of the reforms and financial controls we put in place to ensure these resources reach those who need them most.”c. 2021 The New York Times Company