When President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday, he went out of his way to portray the island as bouncing back from Hurricane Maria’s devastation. Handing out flashlights at a stop during his trip, Trump insisted “you don’t need ‘em,” despite the fact that less than 10% of Puerto Ricans had electricity at the time. All that mattered, it seems, were the optics of an island on the mend.
Those self-congratulatory optics were reinforced this week, when FEMA conspicuously scrubbed some of the grimmest statistics on Puerto Rico’s clean drinking water and electrical availability from its English language website.
As the Washington Post first noted, FEMA’s page documenting the recovery efforts for the island had stated that just around 50% of Puerto Rican residents had access to clean drinking water by Wednesday evening. Similarly, the page claimed, just 5% of the island had electricity. Sometime that night, though, those disheartening statistics were wiped from the page. They were replaced with more benign facts, such as the number of federal personnel on the ground (14,000 people) or the amount of roadways that had been cleared since the storm (30 miles).
“Our mission is to support the governor and his response priorities through the unified command structure to help Puerto Ricans recover and return to routines,” FEMA spokesman William Booher told the Post. He added that “information on the stats you are specifically looking for are readily available.”
Where? On a Spanish-language website maintained by the Puerto Rican Governor’s office. That site currently states that 54.20% of residents have access to clean drinking water, with just 9.20% of the island receiving electricity.
I have reached out to FEMA for comment on the changes, and an explanation for their decision to remove the statistics from the site. I will update this story with their response. (Update: They sent me the exact same statement they sent the Post.)
Still, despite the seeming attempt by FEMA to divert attention from the catastrophic damage Puerto Rico sustained in the storm, the island has seen a steady stream of volunteers. On Wednesday, a consortium of labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, Association of Flight Attendants, Air Line Pilots Association, and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers partnered with United Airlines to fly more than 200 volunteer medical professionals, engineers, and truck drivers to San Juan, to help in the recovery effort.