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FEMA official says bottled water in Puerto Rico was moved to runway to save money

Last Updated Sep 13, 2018 3:25 PM EDT

A senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says millions of bottles of water were moved onto a runway in Puerto Rico in January as a cost-saving measure as regular water service was restored to the island in the months after Hurricane Maria.

Marty Bahamonde, director of disaster operations for FEMA's Office of External Affairs, said in an interview Thursday that the agency had been storing the water in more than 1,100 containers on the island at a cost of about $300,000 per day before moving the supplies outdoors in January.

"FEMA put that water out on that airstrip for the purpose of getting it out of containers, so that there would be no cost to us and no cost to the taxpayer," he said, echoing comments made by FEMA deputy administrator Daniel Kaniewski on "CBS This Morning" on Thursday. "In hindsight, it saved us tens of millions of dollars."

Photos of dozens of pallets of bottled water sitting on the runway emerged this week and raised fresh questions about the federal government's handling in the aftermath of Maria, which devastated the island and was responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths. President Trump defended his administration's response earlier this week, calling it an "unsung success." He cast doubt on the official death toll in tweets on Thursday.

water bottles Puerto Rico

A photograph, taken Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, of the stockpiled water in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.

Abdiel Santana

Bahamonde said FEMA decided to move the bottled water to the runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, and make them available on a government contract in January, as demand for the water from the Puerto Rican government decreased.

"As the water started to come back through the regular water system, and that started to increase, 90, 95 percent of people had water in their homes, there was less and less of a demand for the bottled water that was on the island," Bahamonde said. He added that shipping the supplies back to the U.S. for use in future disasters was "cost prohibitive," and said, "Anytime we waste water, that's something we try absolutely not to do."

FEMA typically transports emergency supplies to areas affected by natural disasters and largely relies on local authorities to distribute those goods. However, FEMA distributed billions of dollars worth of supplies in Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria, given the extent of the destruction of the island's infrastructure from the storm.

The General Services Administration (GSA) in Puerto Rico took possession of the supplies in April and began distributing the water in May, Bahamonde said. Documents show about 20,000 pallets of water were handed over to the GSA. The agency stopped distributing the water after two complaints from municipalities about its unusual taste and smell.

Bahamonde said the excess supply of bottled water was a result of FEMA's efforts to make sure the island had adequate supplies after the storm.

"We will never apologize for erring on the side of having too much of a commodity in a place, because that's what we're supposed to do," he said.