FEMA faces headwinds in Puerto Rico as Dorian hits

As Puerto Rico weathers both Hurricane Dorian and a political storm, it will turn to a federal agency — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — that is facing upheaval of its own.

The spat between President Donald Trump and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz comes while their emergency management teams are dealing with the hurricane, a major effort that requires intensive coordination between local and federal authorities. At the same time, FEMA is in transition.

Even a glancing blow from a low-level hurricane could be damaging to the US territory, where the incomplete recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria is symbolized by the homes still covered with blue tarps that were placed in 2017. Another hurricane, Puerto Rican recovery official Omar Marrero told Congress in July, is “our biggest fear.”

At the federal level, the response is led by a FEMA leadership team that is unsettled. Peter Gaynor, whose experience includes leading disaster preparations and response in Rhode Island, serves as acting administrator while Jeffrey Byard — Trump’s nominee to lead the agency and currently its associate administrator — is awaiting a Senate confirmation vote.

Adding to the tumult, the Trump administration announced on Tuesday plans to shift $155 million from FEMA’s disaster relief fund to immigration priorities — which, along with FEMA, is a responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.

A FEMA spokeswoman said the agency has sufficient funding and acknowledged the challenges of responding to Dorian “on top of a complex recovery effort” from the earlier storms.

“While repaired systems are in a more resilient condition than they were prior to the 2017 hurricanes, there is still more work to be done,” the spokeswoman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. As a result, “even smaller and less severe storm systems could have a significant impact to infrastructure, individuals, and communities.”

The agency also said the disaster relief funds siphoned off for immigration measures leave “approximately $27 billion” still available to respond to disasters including hurricanes. In late September 2017, the fund was stocked with about $5 billion, and it was restocked with another $6.7 billion early that October.

“Based on DHS and FEMA’s review of historical emergency spending from the DRF Base account, this amount will be sufficient to support operational needs and will not impact ongoing long-term recovery efforts across the country,” the spokeswoman said.

The House subcommittee chairman overseeing FEMA said that despite the relatively small amount of funds being sent to immigration efforts, he is not confident in FEMA’s explanation.

“These funds are being diverted from FEMA and it’s going to naturally impact their ability to respond,” said Rep. Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat.

“I don’t think he realizes what he’s doing, putting Americans’ lives in danger and not having the resources,” he said of Trump. In 2017, the situation in Puerto Rico was “bad enough when they had the resources and were not able to get the job done.”

The war of words between Trump and the San Juan mayor that flared up around the 2017 storms reignited this week, threatening to draw rifts when governmental collaboration is most needed.

Trump said Wednesday that the work of FEMA deserves “a big Thank You – Not like last time.”

“That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!” he said, and also called the island’s leadership corrupt.

Yulin Cruz said Trump should “get out of the way,” and that thousands of Puerto Ricans had died in the 2017 storms “because this racist man did not have it within him to do his job.”

Meanwhile, people in Puerto Rico are preparing for a storm that could set back their own return to normalcy.

“I think the people of Puerto Rico have shown that resiliency is our middle name, our first name and last name,” resident Mari Rosas told CNN. “We’ll definitely get back up.”

CNN’s Geneva Sands, Priscilla Alvarez and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.