March 31, 2023

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) – More than half a million people in Puerto Rico remained without water service three days after Hurricane Fiona hit the U.S. territory, and many spent hours Wednesday filling jugs from water trucks while others carried water from water trucks. mountain stream

People sweat in long lines of cars in the northern mountain town of Caguas, where the government sent a water truck, one of at least 18 so-called “oases” across the island.

The situation was alarming with many people across an island again left without basic services after a storm.

“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but it was worse,” said Gerardo Rodriguez in the southern coastal city of Salinas, which was hit by the 2017 hurricane that killed nearly 3,000 people and destroyed the island’s power grid.

Fiona dumped nearly two feet of rain in parts of Puerto Rico before blasting across eastern Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Swelling to Category 4 strength, the storm was on track to approach Bermuda early Friday morning and then hit eastern Canada early Saturday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

The storm wreaked havoc with Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, which was patched but not fully rebuilt after Maria caused blackouts that lasted 11 months in some places.

A man points to a house destroyed by Hurricane Fiona in Villa Esperanza, Salinas, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.
A man points to a house destroyed by Hurricane Fiona in Villa Esperanza, Salinas, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.

Alejandro Granadillo via The Associated Press

As of Wednesday afternoon, about 70% of Puerto Rican customers were without power, according to government figures.

In Caguas, the air conditioning in Emayra Veguila’s car wasn’t working, so the bus driver put a small fan on the passenger seat. Earlier, he blasted the song “Hijos del Canaveral” (“Boys of the Sugarcane Field”) written by Puerto Rican hip-hop star Rene Perez as a message for the bravery of Puerto Rico and its people.

“I needed a shot of patriotism,” he said. “I need the strength to do it again.”

Veguela waited in line Tuesday, only to be told the water had run out and another truck wouldn’t be available until Wednesday.

A few people in front of Veguila gave up and left, people waiting as the tension grew.

“Move!” A driver yelled, fearing people trying to cut him off.

Some who saw the line chose instead to drive to a nearby highway where fresh water flowed down the hillside through bamboo pipes that had been installed.

Greg Reyes, an English teacher, stood in line in muddy flip-flops to collect water for himself, his girlfriend and their cat. He brought a large bag in which he kept all the empty containers he found in their house, including more than a dozen small water bottles.

Reyes said he and his partner had bought water since Fiona’s injury, but could no longer afford it.

Behind him stood retired William Rodriguez, surrounded by three large buckets and four gallon containers. He was living in Massachusetts and decided to move back to Puerto Rico about six months ago.

“But I think I’m leaving again,” he said, shaking his head.

People in line grumbled about the slow pace of recovery and accused the government of not helping people on social media and even a gym that said its doors were open to anyone who needed water or a shower.

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

None of those on the line had power, and many wondered if it would take as long to recover as Hurricane Maria.

Power company officials initially said it would take a few days to restore power, but then delayed Tuesday night, saying they faced many obstacles.

“Hurricane Fiona has severely affected electrical infrastructure and generation facilities across the island. We want to make it very clear that recovery and revitalization efforts are ongoing and are being affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, fallen trees, damaged equipment and down lines,” said Luma, the power transmission and distribution operator.

Crews found several substations underwater and inaccessible, officials said.

But Luma said it expected power to be restored Wednesday to much of Puerto Rico’s northern coast, which Fiona largely spared.

The sound of generators could be heard throughout the area as people grew increasingly agitated.

“I expect that by the end of today, a large portion of the population will have access to these services,” said Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, and the agency announced it was sending hundreds of additional personnel to boost local response efforts. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration, which would allow for more federal aid.

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

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials reported relatively light damage and no deaths, although the eye of the Category 4 storm moved close to the British territory’s small capital island of Grand Turk on Tuesday.

“Turks and Caicos has had an extraordinary experience over the last 24 hours,” said Deputy Governor Anya Williams. “That certainly came with its share of challenges.”

Officials said schools in Grand Turk will reopen next week.

Fiona had sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) late Wednesday, the Hurricane Center said. It was centered about 550 miles (885 km) southwest of Bermuda, moving north at 10 miles (17 km).

Fiona killed one person in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and two others were swept away by swollen rivers in Puerto Rico. Two people died in the Dominican Republic: one was killed by a falling tree and the other by an electric post.

Two other deaths were reported in Puerto Rico as a result of the blackout: a 70-year-old man died after trying to fill his running generator with gasoline, and a 78-year-old man who police say inhaled toxic gas. generator

Associated Press reporters Maricarmen Rivera Sanchez and Alejandro Granadillo contributed to this report.

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