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FEMA Officer describes Puerto Rico's recovery from Fiona so far


The federal government says it'll pay 100% of Puerto Rico's recovery costs from Hurricane Fiona for the next month, and President Biden says his administration is laser focused on helping the people on the island. Five days after Fiona made landfall, more than a million people are still without power, and hundreds of thousands lack running water. We've called up FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Robert Little. He's in charge of FEMA recovery operations on the island. Robert, I mentioned the lack of power and the lack of running water. What is FEMA doing to change that?

ROBERT LITTLE: Those two things are our No. 1 priorities, both simultaneously because to get water back requires getting power back. LUMA, the company that is in charge of the transmission of power across the island, has been making good strides, and the governor is pushing them hard to ensure that they keep going, and we're here to support any federal resources they may need to enhance that progress. So it is our No. 1 priority.

For water, we've been in constant contact with PRASA - that is the water utility here on the island - to ensure that they have backup power generation for the facilities that are not on grid power yet. They need power to run the pumps to get the water out to the customers. If they're not on grid, they have backup generators. Some of them are maybe in disrepair. And they have requested some through the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. What they cannot source they then pass to us, and the Army Corps of Engineers assists us in the assessment of what's needed and getting generators out there and installed.

MARTÍNEZ: Robert, I've read and heard a lot of skepticism and a wait-and-see attitude from Puerto Ricans because of FEMA's failure after Hurricane Maria back in 2017. I know that FEMA has pledged that this time around will not be like Hurricane Maria. How will it be different? What's your message to Puerto Ricans who are waiting?

LITTLE: Well, sir, as far as a failure in 2017, we have - there are many lessons that we have learned to do things better. So, you know, that's a tough way to say things. But, yes, we have been working tirelessly with the island over the last five years to exercise. PREMB, from the governor's office all the way down to the local emergency managers, are head and shoulders better at this business than they were back then. And we, like I said, are able to fill in the gaps where - because of our connection with them at their emergency operations centers. So that's the No. 1 reason that we feel this is going to be a much better scenario than Maria.

It's also a truly less impactful storm on the wind side. We know that we had record-breaking rain in the south and the west, but - so it's different, right? And we are pushing people out to the municipalities, and that communication, all the way - like I said, all the way down to the municipal emergency managers is far better than it was at 2017.

MARTÍNEZ: That's FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Robert Little. He's heading up the FEMA recovery operation on the island of Puerto Rico. Robert, thank you very much.

LITTLE: It's been a pleasure. Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.