Water: A life-and-death struggle
Puerto Rico residents becoming more desperate for clean drinking water
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — After a day spent working in an office in the dark, without air conditioning, Iris Díaz arrived at her neighbourhood CVS drugstore desperate for what has quickly become one of the most sought-after items in Puerto Rico: bottled water.
A sales clerk standing behind the checkout counter explained that the store had been out of stock for three days.
“Ni una sola botellita?” Díaz pleaded in Spanish. “Not even one little bottle?”
The employee shook her head and apologized.
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the challenge of finding enough water to drink and cook with remains enormous across the island, even in its largest city. People here engage in a perpetual game of cat and mouse, scouring the city for any hints of places with water to sell.
People are so desperate that on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency cited reports of residents trying to obtain drinking water from wells at hazardous Superfund sites. “EPA advises against tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people’s health,’’ the agency said.
The demand has skyrocketed, according to grocery store managers, distributors and supply companies because safe, drinkable tap water is still largely unavailable, and deliveries of water from the outside have not kept up with demand. Even Puerto Ricans who have been told that their local water is safe to drink are avoiding it because of reports that infectious diseases are spreading on the island.
The sight of water delivery trucks outside stores is prompting long lines to form. Crushes of customers snatch up new shipments even before store employees can restock empty shelves.
Of 10 stores in San Juan that were visited Tuesday and Wednesday, only one had bottled water: a Walmart where two brawny men were loading cases of water directly off a shipping palette into the shopping carts of people who had lined up in the back of the store. Signs posted on the walls declared a limit of one case per group.
Phillip Keene, director of corporate communications for Walmart, said that during the storm, the company had safeguarded palettes of water on cargo ships that were sent out to sea and away from Maria’s path. Since then, the company has been delivering about 6 million bottles of water a week to Puerto Rico from the continental United States, and it is making plans to double the supply as soon as possible. Keen added that before the storm, Walmart stores in Puerto Rico generally sold about 300,000 cases of water a week, almost all of it bottled from sources on the island.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said, “There’s a real sense of urgency.”
Some Puerto Ricans, particularly those in rural areas, are relying entirely on water provided as emergency aid by FEMA. The water is sent to local distribution centers, and then delivered door to door by local governments.
Federal officials said that as of Wednesday, more than 6 million litres of water had arrived on the island, but that damaged ports, roads and bridges had slowed the deliveries, especially to the interior of the commonwealth.
Officials say 75 per cent of the island’s ports are open, and they are receiving about 1,100 containers of supplies a day, close to the 1,400 that came in daily before the storm.
The lack of water is far worse than anything experienced in Florida and Texas after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Relief experts say that because of the extent of damage to Puerto Rico’s water systems, the scale of the overall destruction and the difficulty of delivering aid to an island rather than on the mainland, it did not make sense to compare the response in Puerto Rico with Florida or Texas in terms of efficiency or focus.
“What happened in Texas and Florida were disasters,” said W. Craig Fugate, who was FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama. “What happened in Puerto Rico was a catastrophe.”
Sonia Torres stands while posing in her destroyed home while taking a break from cleaning, three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. The area is without running water or grid power as a nightly curfew remains in effect.
A customer purchases bottled water at a Walmart in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday.