(CBS NEWS) — The federal response to Hurricane Maria is under scrutiny again after photos show what appear to be millions of water bottles meant for victims of the storm still sitting on a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.
The photos began circulating on social media Tuesday, the same day President Trump again praised the government’s response to Maria during a meeting with top DHS and FEMA officials.
Marty Bahmonde, a senior official at FEMA, confirmed to CBS News’ David Begnaud that the agency delivered the water to the island. From there, the details are unclear. Bahmonde said they don’t track specific shipments of water bottles so it’s not clear when they were delivered or what became of the bottles after the delivery.
Begnaud spoke with Abdiel Santana, who works with the Puerto Rico state police agency FURA. Santana says he took the photos on Tuesday because he was angry to still see the bottles sitting there. Santana, who posted the photos to his Facebook on Tuesday, said he first saw the bottles there in either October or November of last year.
The General Services Administration (GSA) says it requested excess water inventory from FEMA through the United States GSA Surplus Property program. In total, it claimed about 20,000 pallets of bottled water that the federal government reported having in excess.
In a statement, the GSA Administrator for Puerto Rico, Ottmar Chávez, said FEMA “reported that it had an excess of bottled water in May 2018, before I became the agency’s administrator.” Chávez said he only became aware of the bottled water on Tuesday and does not know why it is there, how it got there or how long it has been there. Now, he’d like to give it back to FEMA because his agency has received two complaints about the taste and smell of the water.
Chávez added: “These bottles were claimed by [GSA] in May 2018 for delivery to municipalities, agencies and various entities. The delivery that included 12 municipalities and WIPR was initiated. After having delivered more than 700 pallets, [GSA] received several complaints about the smell and taste of the water received from FEMA.”
Chavez said he was in contact with FEMA and the Department of Health to test the water.
Puerto Rico’s governor last month raised the U.S. territory’s official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975. The storm, which devastated the territory last September, is also estimated to have caused $100 billion in damage.
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