October 6, 2022

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — More than half a million people in Puerto Rico have been without water for three days after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the U.S. territory, and many spent hours in lines Wednesday to fill jugs from water trucks, while others were catching water from mountain runoff.

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

The situation was maddening for many people across the island who were once again without basic services after the storm.

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

Fiona dumped about two feet of rain on parts of Puerto Rico before exploding over the eastern Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Swelling to a Category 4 storm, the storm was on track to pass near Bermuda early Friday and then hit easternmost Canada early Saturday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

The storm wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico’s power grid, which was patched but never fully restored after Maria caused blackouts that lasted 11 months in some places.

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

Alejandro Granadillo via Associated Press

As of Wednesday afternoon, approximately 70 percent of Puerto Rican customers were without power, according to government data.

In Caguas, the air conditioning in Emayra Veguilla’s car didn’t work, so the bus driver lifted a small fan onto the passenger seat. She previously touted 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 courage of its people.

“I needed a little patriotism,” she said. “I needed the strength to do this one more time.”

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

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

“Move!” shouted one driver, afraid of people trying to get in.

Some who saw the line decided instead to drive to a nearby highway where fresh water trickled down the mountain via a bamboo pipe someone had 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 with all the empty containers he could find in their house, including more than ten small bottles of water.

Reyes said he and his partner had been buying water since Fiona hit, but could no longer afford it.

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

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

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

“This was not easy,” said Juan Santos, a pensioner holding the hand of his five-year-old grandson. “We suffer.”

None of those in line had power, and many wondered if it would take as long to rebuild as it did with Hurricane Maria.

Power utility officials initially said it would take several days to restore power, but they appeared to backtrack Tuesday night, saying they faced numerous obstacles.

“Hurricane Fiona has severely affected electrical infrastructure and manufacturing facilities across the island. We want to make it clear that recovery and power restoration efforts are ongoing and have been affected by heavy flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, damaged equipment and downed power lines,” said Luma, a company that manages electricity transmission and distribution.

Officials said crews found several substations underwater and inaccessible.

But Luma said she expects to restore power Wednesday to much of Puerto Rico’s northern coast, which was largely spared by Fiona.

The hum of generators could be heard across the territory as people grew increasingly bitter.

“I remain hopeful that by the end of today, a large portion of the population will have 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 bolster local response efforts. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration, which would have provided more federal aid.

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

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials reported relatively little damage and no deaths, although the eye of the Category 4 storm passed close to Grand Turk, the tiny British territory’s main island, on Tuesday.

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

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

The hurricane center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 135 mph (215 km/h) late Wednesday. It was centered about 550 miles (885 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, and was moving 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 were killed in the Dominican Republic: one was killed by a falling tree and the other by a fallen power pole.

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

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

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