Water: A life-and-death strug­gle

Puerto Rico res­i­dents be­com­ing more des­per­ate for clean drink­ing water

Waterloo Region Record - - WORLD - Caitlin Dickerson

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.

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