Clean Water And Access To Power Remains An Issue For Puerto Ricans

Oct 1, 2017
Originally published on October 1, 2017 6:06 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'll start the program again today by hearing about conditions in Puerto Rico, where more U.S. troops have arrived. President Trump continues to hit back on Twitter against those who've complained that relief isn't coming fast enough. NPR's Merrit Kennedy tells us that basic necessities are coming back but slowly. Merrit Kennedy is at a disaster center in San Juan with the latest. Merrit, thanks so much for joining us.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with electricity. What's the situation?

KENNEDY: Well, it's very slowly coming back on but not necessarily in the places that are in the most dire of situations. Only 5 percent of the country has power working from the grid. Earlier today, we were in an upscale neighborhood of San Juan with many major hotels, and part of one block had power. And one hotel was putting out power strips for people to use. But for the vast majority of the country, electricity is likely weeks or months away.

To put that in perspective, only nine hospitals have been reconnected to the grid. And if people are lucky enough to have a generator, they're still waiting in hugely long lines for gas to power it. Driving around, you can see closed gas stations with lines stretching hundreds of feet long.

MARTIN: And what about clean water?

KENNEDY: The situation with water also really depends where you are. In metropolitan areas, 55 percent of people have running water. But in the west of the country, just 19 percent do. We visited the Playita neighborhood in San Juan this morning. And that's a low-income community, where, in places, there are still inches of sewage-tainted water on the ground. And most people are using water out of cisterns. But, of course, the electrical pumps aren't working, so it's only just trickling out of the pipes. There, we spoke to Cecilia Collazo Rivera, the leader of the area, who says that the infrastructure situation has compounded their problems.

CECILIA COLLAZO RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KENNEDY: She told us that 2 of the 7 pumps in the nearby lake were already broken when the hurricane struck, So the lake couldn't handle the influx of water, which is why the area flooded.

MARTIN: So, you know, we've been hearing a lot about relief supplies sitting in the ports. Is any of that finally starting to get to where it's needed?

KENNEDY: The government is ramping up efforts to get aid out, and the most marked change today is an influx of U.S. military personnel. That number has climbed from about 2,600 to about 6,400 in the last 36 hours. And they're certainly very visible in the disaster center where I'm talking to you from now. But for people waiting for aid, it can't come fast enough. That's the irony of President Trump's tweets yesterday, where he said that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them when it should be a community effort. Because, in fact, in many of the hard-hit areas that we've visited, it has, so far, almost entirely been a community effort.

In the mountains in the center of the country, we drove for hours without seeing any aid vehicles. We did see some Puerto Rican National Guard just starting to arrive yesterday to the central region of Florida, where dozens of homes are still underwater. So it's happening, but for people waiting for it, it certainly feels slow.

MARTIN: You've already sort of told us about a number of the basic necessities, but how about getting to work? I mean, can people get to work?

KENNEDY: Well, that's really a big concern for a lot of people. A lot of businesses are still closed, and people don't necessarily have a lot of savings. And even if they do, it can be difficult to actually access them. Because of the electricity, most places are only taking cash. And you're seeing really, really long lines at ATMs. I spoke to Edison Rodriguez. He's 21, and he also lives in the Playita neighborhood. And he works as a coordinator at a doctor's office, but he can't work now because there's no communications.

EDISON RODRIGUEZ: I spoke to my boss. I tried messaging him because we also don't have any network. And no reply yet. Supposedly, they were working on restoring the Internet so that we can work because the doctor works at the States. But nothing else either. My wife - she's due to go back to work on Tuesday.

KENNEDY: And he says that that's a relief, but they also have a baby, so they're trying to figure out how to care for him when it takes so much time every day to just find basic supplies. So for many people here, life is totally on hold. And it's not at all clear when things will start to be normal again.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Meritt Kennedy. She's in San Juan. Merrit, thank you.

KENNEDY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.