CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — More than half a million people in Puerto Rico were still without water service three days after Hurricane Fiona hit U.S. territory, spending hours Wednesday in lines to fill tanker trucks while others They drew water from mountain runoff.
Sweat rolled down the faces of people in a long line of cars in the northern mountain city of Caguas, where the government had sent a tanker truck, one of at least 18 so-called “oases” installed across the island.
The situation was maddening for many people on an island that was once again left without basic services after 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 killed nearly 3,000 people and destroyed the island’s power grid.
Fiona dumped about two feet of rain on parts of Puerto Rico before exploding in the eastern Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
At Category 4 strength, the storm was headed to pass near Bermuda early Friday and then hit far eastern Canada early Saturday, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
The storm wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico’s power grid, which had been repaired but never fully rebuilt after Maria caused an 11-month blackout in some places.
As of Wednesday afternoon, about 70% of Puerto Rican customers lacked power, according to government figures.
In Caguas, the air conditioning in Emayra Veguilla’s car was not working, so the bus driver placed a small fan in the passenger seat. Previously, she had blasted out the song “Hijos del Cañaveral,” written by Puerto Rican hip-hop star René Pérez as an ode to Puerto Rico and the bravery of its people.
“I needed an injection of patriotism,” he said. “I needed strength to do this one more time.”
Veguilla had waited in line Tuesday, only to be told the water had run out and another truck wouldn’t be available until Wednesday.
Some people ahead of Veguilla gave up and walked away, tension building as people waited.
“Move on!” a driver yelled, afraid people would try to get in.
Some of those who saw the line chose to drive to a nearby road where fresh water ran down the side of the mountain through 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 had brought a large bag with all the empty containers he could find in his house, including more than a dozen small water bottles.
Reyes said that he and his partner had been buying water since Fiona’s hit, but could no longer afford to do so.
Behind him was retiree William Rodriguez, surrounded by three large buckets and four-gallon containers. He had been living in Massachusetts and decided to return to Puerto Rico about six months ago.
“But I think I’m going again,” he said as he shook his head.
Those in line complained about the slow pace of recovery and accused the government of not helping them, as people on social media and even a gym said its doors were open to anyone who needed water or a shower.
“This has not been easy,” said Juan Santos, a retiree holding the hand of his 5-year-old grandson. “We’re suffering”.
None of those in line had power, and many wondered if it would take as long to restore it as it did with Hurricane Maria.
Power company officials initially said it would take a few days to restore power, but then appeared to back down Tuesday night, saying they faced numerous obstacles.
“Hurricane Fiona has severely impacted electrical infrastructure and generation facilities across the island. We want to make it very clear that efforts to restore and reenergize continue and are affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorating equipment and downed lines,” said Luma, the company that operates the power transmission and distribution.
Authorities said crews found several substations underwater and inaccessible.
But Luma said he hoped to restore power Wednesday to much of Puerto Rico’s north coast, which Fiona largely saved.
The hum of generators could be heard throughout the territory as people grew increasingly 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. Peter 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 personnel to boost local response efforts. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration, which would allow for more federal assistance.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and sent a couple of teams to the island.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands, authorities reported relatively light damage and no deaths, although the eye of the Category 4 storm passed near Grand Turk, the capital island of the small British territory, on Tuesday.
“Turks and Caicos had a phenomenal experience in the last 24 hours,” the lieutenant governor said. Anya Williams. “It certainly came with its share of challenges.”
Officials said the school in Grand Turk would reopen next week.
The Hurricane Center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) on Wednesday night. The center of it was about 550 miles (885 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda and heading north at 10 mph (17 kph).
Fiona killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and two others in Puerto Rico in swollen rivers. Two died in the Dominican Republic: one died from a falling tree and the other from a falling electrical pole.
Two additional deaths were reported in Puerto Rico as a result of the blackout: a 70-year-old man was burned to death after trying to fill his running generator with gasoline, and a 78-year-old man, according to police, inhaled toxic fumes from his generator.
Associated Press writers Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez and Alejandro Granadillo contributed to this report.