Thousands of water bottles left unused, contaminated in Puerto Rico after last year's hurricane

Debris in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Sept 20, 2017. Many people suffered from a lack of potable water for at least several weeks after the storm hit last September.

LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - About 20,000 pallets of water bottles shipped to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year went unused and eventually became too contaminated to drink, officials from the US territory said on Wednesday (Sept 12).

Photos showing the water sitting on an airport runway in Puerto Rico circulated on social media on Tuesday, the same day President Donald Trump touted his administration's response to the hurricane as an "unsung success".

Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, killed an estimated 3,000 people in the US territory, and some officials there were critical of Mr Trump's claim of a successful aid effort.

CBS News first reported the existence of the unused water pallets, showing images of them on the runway in the community of Ceiba.

Many people in Puerto Rico suffered from a lack of potable water for at least several weeks after the storm hit last September.

Officials from the federal government and Puerto Rico, in e-mails to Reuters on Wednesday, could not say when exactly the 20,000 pallets of water arrived on the island.

In April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported the water was sitting unused, Mr Ottmar Chávez, administrator of Puerto Rico's General Services Administration, said in a statement.

Puerto Rico authorities obtained approval to take custody of it and they distributed 700 pallets of water to local residents between May and August, Mr Chávez said. But people complained the bottled water smelled and tasted bad, so the Puerto Rico government told federal authorities they wanted to return it, he said.

Federal officials initially indicated the pallets were stored in a warehouse, not outside, Mr Héctor M. Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Public Security, said in a statement.

It was not clear how long the water has sat under the sun at the runway.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a statement on Wednesday, said it, "purchased the water as part of its supplies and determined there was a surplus" before making the water "available to any agency that needed it".

"Once the transfer of water took place, the water became property of the government of Puerto Rico," it said.

An overabundance of water appears to have been delivered to Puerto Rico at the wrong time, Ceiba's Mayor Angel Cruz told CNN. "The time and heat has made it bad," he said.

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