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After Hurricane Maria, fuel requests by Walmart stores in Puerto Rico went unanswered

Last Updated Mar 20, 2018 7:03 PM EDT

Days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, requests for emergency generator fuel sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by Walmart officials so they could power their stores went unanswered and ultimately forced them to dispose of thousands of dollars' worth of perishable food, according to a newly released letter from House Democratic investigators.

Two days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, a senior Walmart official and a Puerto Rican government official began communicating via email on how to best get fuel to the 46 Walmart store generators, so valuable food would not perish, according to the letter.

Several emails sent by the official received no response from FEMA, according to the letter.  One of these emails even included a list sent by Walmart detailing the "top 12 stores" to "serve the largest populations" in Puerto Rico, an effort to prioritize which stores received emergency fuel first.

After five days of unsuccessful requests from the official, Puerto Rican Governor Rossello "personally intervened" with FEMA to again request emergency assistance for the grocery stores.

It is unclear how many tons of perishable meat, dairy, and producer were lost because of the lack of fuel for the generators, but the letter cites a Puerto Rican Walmart employee who said his store and several other stores were "forced to throw out…all perishable food products, as the result of a lack of emergency fuel."

The letter also notes that local supermarkets, like Selectos Supermarket in San Juan, were forced to throw out thousands of dollars' worth of food, too. Joeyleen Quinones, a general manager cited in the letter, said her store had to throw out meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy valued at approximately $50,000.

"We are aware of the letter and have consistently worked with the committee and will continue to do so," a FEMA spokesperson told CBS News. "The protection of life and safety is our first priority in any response, including working closely with the government of Puerto Rico to support the fueling mission for critical infrastructure."

"To date we've distributed more than 13 million gallons of fuel throughout the response effort. Additionally, the response is now the largest disaster generator mission in U.S. history with more than 1,900 generators installed and more than 850 of those still in use today. More than 63 million meals and snacks and more than 72 million liters of bottled water and nearly 17 million gallons of potable water have also been distributed in Puerto Rico."

CBS News reported last September on the frustration of Puerto Ricans with sparse resources on the island after the hurricane. Three days after Maria struck, Mary Beth Cardenas told CBS News, "We can't get supplies, we can't get food.  

Last month, FEMA's use of resources was questioned when it was reported the agency signed a $156 million dollar contract for 30 million emergency meals with a one-person company. Ultimately 29 million meals were never delivered. 

These new details are included in the letter sent today by House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland; and Rep. Stacey E. Plaskett, D-U.S. Virgin Islands requesting House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, to subpoena the Department of Homeland Security to produce documents related to the Trump Administration's response to the hurricanes last October in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Walmart did not immediately return request for comment.