News Feature | June 18, 2018

After Hurricane, Puerto Rico Water Difficulties Remain

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s drinking water infrastructure last September.

“Hurricane Maria’s destruction knocked out water service to over half of the residents using the island’s utility provider, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The authority provides water to more than 97 percent of the island,” Kaiser Health News reported.

Hurricane season officially restarted in June for Puerto Rico, according to The Independent. That makes it an especially meaningful time to check on recovery efforts from last year’s hurricane season.

“Puerto Rican officials claim that water service on the U.S. island has been restored to more than 96 percent of customers as of June 6, but the report of progress masks underlying problems. Outside of cities, service has been slower to be reconnected. Flow is often intermittent and the water quality is uncertain,” Kaiser Health News reported.

Elí Díaz Atienza, executive president of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), spoke to Kaiser Health News.

“The drops in service represent generators failing or places where electricity was re-established and perhaps temporarily lost,” he explained.

Electrical outages and faulty generators can sabotage pump functions. Residents are told to boil water for three days after an interruption to ensure that it is safe to drink.

Kaiser Health News raised questions about water quality on the island, where some residents have stopped trusting their tap water. Water safety was a problem in some areas before the storm, the report said.

The storm also took a major toll on sewage treatment plants.

“More than a third of sewage treatment plants were unable to function after the hurricane, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, resulting in raw sewage flowing into waterways residents used for drinking and bathing. And dozens of residents soon after the storm fell ill with leptospirosis, a serious bacterial infection that can occur from consuming or wading in contaminated water, according to health officials,” Kaiser Health News reported.

Scientists from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health argue that between September 20 and December 31, 2017, there were 4,645 "excess deaths" in Puerto Rico linked to the hurricane. Those findings were published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“On average, households [in the study] went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellular telephone coverage after the hurricane and until December 31, 2017,” the report stated.

In remote areas, time without water service was considerably longer, the report added.