CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) – More than half a million people in Puerto Rico were left without water service on Wednesday – three days after Hurricane Fiona crashed into U.S. territory – sending many in line for hours to fill jugs from water trucks and others to collect water from mountain runoff.
Sweat ran down people’s faces in a long line of cars in the northern mountain town of Caguas, where the government had set up a water truck, one of at least 18 so-called “oases” set up across the island.
The setback has been infuriating for many on an island once again without basic services following a storm.
“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but this was worse,” said Gerardo Rodríguez in the southern coastal city of Salinas, referring to the 2017 hurricane that claimed nearly 3,000 deaths and demolished the US power grid. .
Fiona dumped about two feet of rain over parts of Puerto Rico before exploding across the eastern Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Rising to Category 4 strength, the storm was about to pass near Bermuda at the end of Thursday or Friday and then hit easternmost Canada by the end of Friday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The storm devastated Puerto Rico’s power grid, which had been repaired but never fully rebuilt after Maria caused an 11-month blackout in places.
As of Wednesday afternoon, around 70 percent of Puerto Rican customers were without electricity, according to government data.
In Caguas, the air conditioning of Emayra Veguilla’s car was not working, so the 34-year-old bus driver set a small fan in the passenger seat. Earlier that day, he had blew up the song “Hijos del Canaveral”, (“The Sons of the Sugar Cane Field”), written by Puerto Rican hip-hop star René Pérez as an ode to Puerto Rico and to the courage of its people.
“I needed a shot of patriotism,” he said. “I needed the strength to do it one more time.”
Veguilla had waited in line on Tuesday, only to be told that the water was out and that another truck would not be available until the next day.
Some people in front of Veguilla gave up and walked away, with the tension growing the longer people waited.
“Move!” yelled a driver, frightened of people trying to get inside.
Some of those who saw the line decided instead to drive to a nearby road where fresh water dripped down the mountainside via a bamboo tube someone had installed.
Greg Reyes, a 24-year-old English teacher, stood in line in muddy flip-flops to collect water for himself, his girlfriend and their cat. He had brought a large bag with all the empty containers he could find in the house, including more than a dozen small bottles of water.
Reyes said he and his partner had been buying water since Fiona hit, but they couldn’t afford to do it anymore.
Standing behind him was 67-year-old retiree William Rodríguez, surrounded by three large buckets and four 1-gallon containers. He lived in Massachusetts and decided to return to Puerto Rico about six months ago.
“But I think I’ll go again,” he said as he shook his head.
People in line complained about the slow pace of recovery and accused the government of not helping them.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Juan Santos, a 70-year-old retiree who held the hand of his 5-year-old grandson. “We are suffering”.
None of those in line even had the power and many wondered if it would take as long to restore as it did with Hurricane Maria.
Electricity company officials initially said it would take a few days to restore electricity, but then appeared to retrace their steps Tuesday evening, saying they faced numerous obstacles.
“Hurricane Fiona has had a severe impact on electrical infrastructure and power generation facilities across the island. We want to clarify that efforts to restore and reactivate continue and are affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorated equipment and lines downed, “said Luma, the company that manages the transmission and distribution of energy.
Officials said crews found several underwater and inaccessible substations.
But Luma said he plans to restore electricity Wednesday to much of Puerto Rico’s northern coast, which Fiona has largely spared.
The hum of the generators could be heard throughout the territory as people became more and more exasperated.
“I continue to hope that by the end of today, a large part of the population will have these services,” said the governor of Puerto Rico. Pedro Pierluisi.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, and the agency announced it would send hundreds of additional staff to augment local response efforts.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and has deployed a couple of 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 near Grand Turk, the small capital island of British territory, on Tuesday.
“Turks and Caicos have had a phenomenal experience in the past 24 hours,” said the deputy governor. Anya Williams. “He definitely came with the challenges part of her.”
The Hurricane Center said Fiona experienced maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 km / h) on Wednesday and was centered approximately 675 miles (1,090 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, heading north at 8 mph (13 km). / h).
Fiona killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and two others in Puerto Rico were swept away by flooding rivers. Two died in the Dominican Republic: one killed by a fall of a tree and the other by the fall of an electric pole.
Two other deaths were reported in Puerto Rico as a result of the blackout: a 70-year-old man burned to death after attempting to fill his running generator with gasoline, and a 78-year-old man, according to police, inhaled toxic gases from the its Generator.
Associated Press reporters Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez and Alejandro Granadillo contributed to this report.