Puerto Ricans desperate for water in the wake of Hurricane Fiona

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — More than half a million people in Puerto Rico were left without water supplies three days after Hurricane Fiona struck U.S. territory, and many spent hours waiting in lines to fill jugs from water trucks on Wednesday, while others scooped up water from the mountain runoff.

Sweat poured from people in a long line of cars in the northern mountain town of Caguas, where the government had sent a water truck, one of at least 18 so-called “oases” set up across the island.

The situation has been maddening for many on an island once again left without basic services after a storm.

“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but this was worse,” said Gerardo Rodríguez in the southern coastal town of Salinas, referring to the 2017 hurricane that killed nearly 3,000 and destroyed the island’s power grid.

Fiona dropped about two feet of rain on parts of Puerto Rico before firing across the eastern Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos Islands.

The storm, which had swelled to Category 4 strength, was on a path to pass near Bermuda early Friday and then hit easternmost Canada early Saturday, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

The storm devastated Puerto Rico’s power grid, which was repaired but never fully rebuilt after Maria caused a power outage in some locations that lasted 11 months.

A man points to a house that collapsed from Hurricane Fiona at Villa Esperanza in Salinas, Puerto Rico, Wednesday September 21, 2022.

Alejandro Granadillo via Associated Press

About 70% of Puerto Rican customers were without power as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the government.

In Caguas, the air conditioning in Emayra Veguilla’s car wasn’t working, so the bus driver placed a small fan in the passenger seat. She had previously hyped the song “Hijos del Canaveral” (“Sons of the Sugar Cane Field”), written by Puerto Rican hip-hop star René Pérez, as an ode to Puerto Rico and the bravery of its people.

“I needed a shot of patriotism,” she said. “I needed strength to do that again.”

Veguilla had waited in line on Tuesday, only to be told the water had run out and another truck would not be available by Wednesday.

Some people in front of Veguilla gave up and drove away, tensions rising the longer people waited.

“Move!” shouted a driver, afraid of people trying to interfere.

Some who saw the pipe chose instead to drive to a nearby freeway, where fresh water was flowing down the mountainside via a bamboo pipe someone had installed.

Greg Reyes, an English teacher, stood in line in muddy flip-flops to get water for himself, his girlfriend and her cat. He had brought a large bag containing every empty container he could find at their house, including more than a dozen small water bottles.

Reyes said he and his partner had been buying water since Fiona was hit but could no longer afford to do so.

Standing behind him was retiree William Rodríguez, surrounded by three large buckets and four-gallon containers. He had lived in Massachusetts and decided to return to Puerto Rico about six months ago.

“But I think I’ll go again,” he said, shaking his head.

Those in line complained about the slow pace of recovery and blamed the government for not helping them, as people on social media and even at a gym said their doors were open to anyone in need of water or a shower.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Juan Santos, a retiree holding the hand of his 5-year-old grandson. “We suffer.”

Also, none of those in line had power, and many wondered if recovery would take as long as Hurricane Maria did.

Officials at the utility company initially said it would take a few days to restore power but then appeared to back down on Tuesday night, saying they were facing numerous obstacles.

“Hurricane Fiona severely impacted electrical infrastructure and power generation facilities across the island. We want to make it very clear that recovery and reactivation efforts are ongoing and are being impacted by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorating equipment and downed lines,” said Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution.

Officials said crews found several substations underwater and inaccessible.

But Luma said it expects to restore power to much of Puerto Rico’s north shore on Wednesday, largely sparing Fiona.

The hum of generators could be heard across the area as people grew increasingly angry.

“I continue to hope that by the end of today, a large portion of the population will be using these services,” said Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Puerto Rico Tuesday and the agency said it would deploy hundreds of additional personnel to bolster local response efforts. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden passed a Major Disaster Declaration that would allow for more federal aid.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and dispatched some teams to the island.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials reported relatively light damage and no fatalities, although the eye of the Category 4 storm passed near Grand Turk, the capital island of the small British territory, on Tuesday.

“The Turks and Caicos Islands have had a phenomenal experience over the past 24 hours,” Deputy Governor Anya Williams said. “It certainly came with its share of challenges.”

Officials said the school on Grand Turk will reopen next week.

The Hurricane Center said Fiona experienced maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) late Wednesday. It was centered about 550 miles (885 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda and traveling north at 10 mph (17 km/h).

Fiona killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and two others in Puerto Rico who were swept away by swollen rivers. Two died in the Dominican Republic: one from a falling tree and the other from a falling power pole.

Two more deaths were reported in Puerto Rico as a result of the blackout: a 70-year-old man burned to death after trying to fill his running generator with gasoline, and a 78-year-old man is said to have inhaled toxic gases from his generator, according to police.

Associated Press journalists Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez and Alejandro Granadillo contributed to this report.

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