The generators are needed now – but they’re being saved for later.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency quietly de-installed the majority of the generators it loaned to hard-hit parts of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s power grid, even though local officials say the electric system remains unstable.
After collecting the generators, FEMA stashed them at three facilities across the island to ensure readiness “for the next emergency event,” an agency spokesman said.
Local officials say they were given little to no warning before FEMA agents arrived to take back the generators, which their communities still depended on for consistent access to potable water.
Glorimar Santiago, president of Los Hernandez, a community located in Guilarte, Adjuntas, said she received a phone call from a FEMA agent about a month ago.
“They called me to say they were going to collect the generator,” she told the Daily News in Spanish. “The very next day, they came and picked it up.”
Santiago said Los Hernandez is still dependent on an “unstable” power system. Regular outages and changes in voltage cause the well’s pump to turn off, leaving residents without access to water.
The disruptions are wearing on the community. About 80% of residents are older than 65, and the closest supermarket is about 20 minutes away by car — with no direct highway.
“It’s really hard when people have to go to the river to get water for cleaning and to the supermarket to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking,” Santiago said.
FEMA installed 1,667 generators across Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. About 60% of the generators were leased, while the rest were taken from FEMA’s mainland supply to power hospitals, dialysis centers, nursing homes and other critical facilities, including water pumping stations.
All but 55 have been collected, FEMA officials recently confirmed. The agency maintains that because power has been restored, “the generators are no longer needed.”
Some of the generators’ leases are up and others are being serviced. More than 600 are being stored in hardened facilities in Ceiba, Barceloneta and Ponce.
If a facility has had power for at least seven days, FEMA will notify the municipality and “proceed with the de-installation,” FEMA Puerto Rico spokesman Juan A. Rosado-Reynes said.
But Puerto Ricans say FEMA’s characterization of the power situation doesn’t reflect reality — the power system is a “disaster” more than a year after the hurricane battered the island with 175 mile-per-hour winds, residents say. And despite FEMA’s de-installation efforts, the power grid in many areas remains unstable.
“The grid was not repaired, it was…essentially patched with duct tape. If we get hit with even a small tropical storm, we are screwed,” said Chrissy Beckles, who lives in San Juan’s Ocean Park community and says she lost power six times on a single day last month.
“I keep a supply of water, gasoline and propane on hand at all times because we literally never know when we will lose power again,” she said.
Her neighborhood is littered with downed cables and poles and has no street lighting.
A veterinary clinic where she works in Las Piedras “loses power at minimum once per week” and depends on generators to function when the power goes out.
FEMA acknowledged its shortcomings in its response to the hurricane, which is estimated to have killed about 3,000 people on the island, in an internal report released in July.
When the hurricane struck, FEMA lacked supplies and trained personnel after it had deployed resources — including specialized staff — to respond to other storms.
FEMA had just 25 generators in stock when Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. It began installing the remainder of the nearly 1,700 generators in late September.
The agency faced “significant challenges” in Maria’s wake and some supplies were mishandled when they reached the island.
“Shipping containers often arrived in Puerto Rico labeled simply as ‘disaster supplies,’ requiring FEMA staff to unload and open containers to determine their contents,” the report stated.
Twenty thousand pallets of FEMA-provided bottled water sat undistributed on an airplane runway in Ceiba — after recipients complained of its foul smell and taste — while storm survivors collected spring water from the mountains for cooking and cleaning.
FEMA administrator Brock Long conceded in a forward to the July report that the agency could have mounted a more “prepared” response to the hurricane. By stockpiling generators, it is putting into practice lessons learned from the botched response to Maria — but community leaders argue the preparations are coming at the expense of ongoing recovery efforts.
An official from the Las Cruces sector of Adjuntas said FEMA picked up its generator less than a month ago, effectively cutting off the community from consistent access to water.
“They never called, they just came and took it away,” President Placido Valentin said in Spanish.
Israel Chevere, president of Pozo Azul, said the town initially borrowed a generator from the local municipality of Ciales. After that generator became damaged, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, known as PRASA, loaned the community another generator which it now wants back, Chevere said in Spanish.
“We still don’t have electricity there,” he said. “Without a generator, we won’t have any water.”
Electricity has been restored to area homes, but it doesn’t reach the aqueduct, which is located in a muddy, hard-to-reach part of the hillside community.
Chevere has a plan should PRASA come to withdraw the generator. He said he’ll travel by pickup truck to Hato Viejo’s well in Arecibo, about five miles away, and ask for water.
“They aren’t obligated to give us water. Only if they want to,” he said.
Chevere insists his municipality’s predicament necessitates the use of one of the generators FEMA is keeping in storage.