Organizations sue FEMA over information tied to Hurricane Maria

Organizations sue FEMA over information tied to Hurricane Maria
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A reporting organization and a legal group on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) alleging that the federal agency has failed to release documents they requested detailing FEMA's emergency relief efforts following Hurricane Maria last year.

The Center for Investigative Reporting in Puerto Rico (CPI) and legal organization LatinoJustice say they requested documents from the agency through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in February and FEMA still has not produced them, according to the court filing

"FEMA has tried to escape accountability, dismissing our information requests for nearly six months now and trying to ignore our FOIA petitions," said Executive Director of CPI Carla Minet in a press release. "That agency is in part responsible for the slow and ineffective recovery process that we have documented and that people have experienced in Puerto Rico, and we want to discover why." 

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The documents requested by the two organizations include records "relating to FEMA's activities in Puerto Rico and the agency's preparations for, and response to, Hurricanes Irma and Maria." 

In the lawsuit, CPI and LatinoJustice claim it is pressing that the public receives access to these documents before hurricane season gets underway in August.

"The public still lacks a full picture of FEMA's efforts to provide relief to Puerto Rico after Maria, and the ways in which those efforts fell short," the lawsuit states. "This lack of information has resulted, at least in part, from FEMA's efforts to shield the information from public view." 

A report from FEMA in July confirmed the agency was underprepared to deal with the devastation caused by the Category 5 storm, which destroyed much of the island's infrastructure and resources. 

In the lawsuit filing, the defendants paint FEMA's lack of preparation as discriminatory, pointing out that the agency during the same storm season deployed far more workers and resources to Florida and Texas after hurricanes made landfall in those states.  

"The scant information FEMA has so far released detailing the extent of its role in disaster relief stops far short of transparency requirements,” said Javier Guzman, the litigation director of nonprofit Democracy Forward, in the press release. "The millions of Americans in Puerto Rico deserve to understand precisely how the federal government responded."

The Trump administration came under fire for its weak response to the hurricanes, which led to hospital closures and power outages across the island for months. Hundreds of Puerto Rico still do not have power. 

Shortly after Maria made landfall, the U.S. president visited the island and appeared to blame Puerto Rico for throwing the U.S. budget "a little out of whack."