The Truth about a Warehouse in Puerto Rico

Men breaking into a warehouse in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in January 2020.

BY ALBERTO A. MARTINEZ

Because of the recent earthquakes, more than 8000 people have been sleeping in streets or shelters, many needing aid. City mayors desperately begged for supplies from the central government. Then, last Saturday, residents of the city of Ponce broke into a 43,000-square-foot warehouse because they heard it was hiding emergency supplies for victims of natural disasters.

Some wanted to know whether this rented warehouse was hiding disaster relief supplies donated to Puerto Rico two years ago after Hurricane Maria — but which were never distributed.

So men broke into the warehouse. They cheered. Right in front of them they saw scores of shipping pallets stacked with thousands of water bottles. Farther behind: countless large boxes stacked fifteen feet high.

Amazed, they recorded cellphone videos of the labyrinth of stacked pallets, boxes, crates. A man proclaimed: “The lies are being documented!”

I was transfixed by their videos. I counted at least 115 pallets of water bottles: roughly 150,000 water bottles just sitting there, wrapped in plastic, covered in dust, locked in that warehouse. People filmed the dates on the shipping labels: October 14, 2017. That was three weeks after Hurricane Maria. Men yelled with indignation: “This has been here since Maria!” Those bottles were so old they had expired on April 14, 2019. Men rushed inside, climbing over walls of water bottles. Other pallets of bottles said October 25, 2017.

Puerto Ricans were enraged and shocked by the stacks of FEMA supplies all locked up while people suffered. A resident of Ponce, Marlon Morales yelled: “The only thing that will be taken out of here is the truth! Of what is happening. The truth has been uncovered, the truth of what is happening. No items will be removed, nothing will be taken illegally. We’re uncovering the truth of what the people are experiencing!”

Angry trespassers yelled out what they found: “There are pallets of portable showers! Pallets!” “These cots — there are many, many, many pallets!” “There are more than sixty pallets of roof tarps!!” Another person said: “This makes me want to cry.” Another: “This is an abuse.” A woman screamed about the bureaucrats who had hidden such supplies: “Abusers! Abusers! While people were suffering! Insensible abusers!”

Hours later a mob had formed, and despite the presence of police officers, the crowd realized that these countless donations had been locked up by Puerto Rican bureaucrats, not distributed to the people. So the mob did what the government failed to do: they quickly grabbed and took items.

I kept pausing their shaky cell phone videos, wanting to read exactly what was in all those boxes. What words can describe the horror of seeing huge piles and tons of donated supplies that, shamefully, were never distributed to the destitute?

Niagara water bottles, Poland Spring water bottles, Food Lion brand Purified Water, Deer Park water bottles, cylinders and jugs to store water, tents, rolls of FEMA blue tarps for roofs, bottles of orange juice, expired, Pedialyte Rehydration Drinks, military food rations, gloves, Coleman compact stoves, five per box, Coleman propane fuel cylinders, water filters, Rayovac AA batteries, Eton FRX3+ All Purpose Weather Radios and Portable Phone Chargers, fire extinguishers, Midland E-Ready crank radios, Midland ER310 Emergency Crank Weather AM/FM Radios, Boen all-purpose blue tarps, Midland cots, pillows, bedsheets, FEMA blue foldable recliner beds, Coleman SupportRest airbeds, Converta Lounge chairs, soap, toothpaste, Sanitex disinfectant/cleaner, plastic bowls, Ensure, adult diapers, Medline 3-Panel Privacy Screens with Flame Retardant, ice coolers, water filters, boxes of cereal, including Earth’s Best organic Whole Grain Oatmeal Cereal, thousands of Huggies diapers, countless boxes of Member’s Mark Premium Wipes, and pallets of baby food, rotten, including Earth’s Best Organic Pears & Raspberries, USDA organic baby food, expired in July 2019.

What adjectives can describe the bureaucrats who failed to distribute these supplies?

Reportedly, Puerto Rico’s chief of emergency management, Carlos Acevedo, had secretly given orders to empty the warehouse, to destroy supplies — before the public could find out that such supplies existed. Saturday, when citizens broke into the warehouse, Acevedo was fired by the Governor.

The Governor ordered an investigation, and on Monday a hundred National guard soldiers removed scores of pallets to distribute them. Twenty trucks each transported many pallets to ten towns, distributing 1394 cots, 897 boxes of diapers, 320 boxes of batteries, 884 tarps, etc.

On Tuesday night, the P.R. government released a long inventory of the items that were suddenly super rapidly distributed. What the list does not say is how many items were old donations meant to help the victims of Hurricane Maria. Such donations were covered in dust. The federal government should investigate how many donations were not distributed after Maria, and the government of Puerto Rico should explain why not.

Professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of six books, plus articles in Scientific American, The Hill, USA Today news, SALON, etc.

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