Emergency Manager Resigns in Puerto Rico; US Army Ends Its Unaccomplished Mission

From [ThinkProgess] and [NyTimes] The head of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency resigned Friday, the same day that the Army general in charge of the military’s response to the hurricane announced that his mission on the island had ended.

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Maria first hit Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian emergency. Today, only 44.5 percent of the population has electricity, and nearly 13 percent of the island still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, according to a site maintained by the governor’s office. The capital of San Juan also had a massive power outage on Thursday, showing the challenges the island continues to face in recovery.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan arrived in Puerto Rico about a week after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island, in the midst of fierce criticism of the federal response. He quickly acknowledged that not enough federal troops were on the island and vowed to do more to help Puerto Rico.

On Friday, he said the federal government had distributed 51 million gallons of water and 20 million meals and had tended to 5,000 sick residents.

“FEMA is going to be here, very much for the long term and the rebuilding,” General Buchanan said. “We in the military generally don’t do that.”

Shortly afterward, the government announced that Abner Gómez, the commissioner of the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency, had resigned.

He said that the military’s missions, primarily clearing roads, attending to medical emergencies and helping restore communications, were complete. Other agencies, like the National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency, would continue the work. Some military officials would remain on the island to wind down operations.

Puerto Rican authorities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will now take over by helping to rebuild roads, bridges, and houses, according to Buchanan. “That’s not really what the military is here to do,” he said. “It doesn’t make good sense to keep us for the long term for recovery.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello did not give a reason for Gomez’s resignation. Last month, El Nuevo Dia newspaper reported that Gomez went on a two-week vacation less than one month after the hurricane first hit. It was unclear whether Mr. Gómez’s resignation was an indication that the government had recognized a failure in its response to Hurricane Maria, or that he had simply lost influence at the agency. Mr. Gómez’s profile had diminished this year when the governor created a cabinet position over him. He had not been a visible figure since the storm and rarely appeared at news conferences.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Gómez acknowledged that the recovery had largely been assigned to someone else, so he was stepping down to let his new supervisor, the secretary of public safety, name his own team.

Mr. Gómez did not respond to requests for comment.

On Thursday, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló asked his cabinet to sign undated letters of resignation. Mr. Rosselló has vowed to eliminate 100 agencies and many members of the cabinet are going to find themselves without jobs, he said.

“We had an emergency phase where practically all of us were sustaining lives,” he said. “We are now entering a recovery phase,” and for that, he said, he needs a more nimble government.

Oscar Ramiro, the head chef of a popular bakery in San Juan, said that Mr. Gómez was not the only official who had shown himself unable to address the destruction of Hurricane Maria. Others should also resign or be replaced, starting at the top, said Mr. Ramiro, who still has no power at his house in Rio Piedras, a San Juan neighborhood.

“He’s been pretty incompetent,” he said of Mr. Gómez. “The governor entrusted him with this responsibility, which means that ultimately, the problem is the governor.”

The government’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico have been widely criticized. It took President Donald Trump eight days to waive the Jones Act, a century-old law that was critics said hindered aid delivery. Nine days after the hurricane first made landfall and just minutes after Trump congratulated himself on his response to the emergency, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said she was “begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying.”

The island has faced serious food and medicine shortages. The water shortage was so severe at one point that some Puerto Ricans were getting their drinking water from hazardous waste “Superfund” sites. For a short time period, FEMA stopped reporting data about access to electricity and water on the island, restoring it only after an outcry. The agency has also avoided questions about food shortages on the island.

Puerto Rico is still struggling with food assistance, especially in comparison to Texas and Florida, due to a congressional budget cap on its food stamp program. On Wednesday, Puerto Rican officials said 472 more people died this September compared to the same time last year. But last month, BuzzFeed reported that the Puerto Rican goverment is allowing funeral homes and crematorium homes to burn the bodies of those who were killed by the hurricane  without including them in the official death toll — so we may never know how many deaths Hurricane Maria caused on the island.