President Trump began his first State of the Union speech with a tribute to American solidarity in the face of crises, including the brutal hurricane season last summer.
“To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else,” he said early in the address, “we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together.”
That’s not necessarily how things look from Puerto Rico, where FEMA made a surprise announcement on Tuesday that it would cease emergency operations on Wednesday, including the distribution of food and potable water. “We were not informed that supplies would stop arriving, nor did the government of Puerto Rico authorize this action,” Héctor M. Pesquera, the government’s public safety secretary, told CNN, adding that he thought the transition period should last two weeks.
The agency has distributed approximately 500,000 meals and 250,000 gallons of water per day since Hurricane Maria hit in September, and said that it believes only 1 percent of Puerto Ricans are still dependent on its services. Its staging areas will remain open, and remaining food and water supplies will be turned over to the Puerto Rican government for distribution.
Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA’s director in Puerto Rico, framed the decision to NPR as a way to restart the Puerto Rican economy. “If we’re giving free water and food, that means that families are not going to supermarkets to buy,” he told NPR. “It is affecting the economy of Puerto Rico. So we need to create a balance. With the financial assistance we’re providing to families and the municipalities, they’re able to go back to the normal economy.”
About one-third of the island remains without electricity—making it impossible for many Puerto Ricans to store food at home—and in late December, 14 percent of the population didn’t have running water. Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan who has feuded with Trump before, was a guest of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the Capitol on Tuesday night. In a speech earlier on Tuesday at the Latino Victory Summit, Cruz criticized the plan and the president. “There is a need in Puerto Rico, and we ask the president to, for once, do the right thing and not take the aid away from Puerto Rico,” she said. “While I’m standing here with you there are children without food in Puerto Rico.”
New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who is Puerto Rican, also spoke at the event and criticized FEMA’s withdrawal. “This is another sign of a president that is totally disengaged from how they treat fellow citizens in the island of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” she said.
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