Hurricane Maria worsens Puerto Rico's water woes

Hurricane Maria worsens Puerto Rico's water woes
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Amid the humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico, most people can’t drink the water. 

But even before a Category 4 hurricane slammed the U.S. territory, the island’s water supply was in serious trouble.

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Some 55 percent of Puerto Ricans still don’t have access to drinking water as of Saturday, and concerns are rising over the potential for waterborne illnesses. Prior to the storm, though, the island had the worst rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory, a result of outdated infrastructure, pollution and underinvestment, experts said.

"With the hurricane taking out so much of the island's drinking water infrastructure, we're again seeing the very harsh reality of what years of underinvestment and a failure to address this problem can result in,” Adrianna Quintero, the director of partner engagement for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.

In 2015, nearly 70 percent of the population got their water from sources that violated federal health standards in 2015. These include having high levels of bacteria and other contaminants, according to a May report from the group. 

Congressional Democrats have urged President Trump to do more to help out Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents. On Tuesday, Trump and other members of the Cabinet traveled to the island after a Twitter feud between the president and San Juan’s mayor

While there, Trump made a reference to the island’s debt, which totals $74 billion, indicating it could complicate federal budget requests for disaster relief. 

"I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack, but that's fine," Trump said, according to a White House pool report.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Crying on TV doesn't qualify Kimmel to set nation's gun agenda Trump knocks ‘fake’ news coverage of his trip to Puerto Rico MORE (D-N.Y.) had harsh words for Trump’s comments, saying “Mr. President, enough. Stop blaming Puerto Rico for the storm that devastated their shores, and roll up your sleeves and get the recovery on track. That’s your job as President.”

He added: “Yes we’re spending money in Puerto Rico. We’re spending money to turn the power back on. To give people drinking water,” Schumer said at a press conference Tuesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is expanding distribution centers where they collect water and commodities for remote areas. There are about 78 tanker trucks operating on the island. As for purchasing food and water, 65 percent of grocery stores and supermarkets are open, in addition to 69 percent of gas stations, FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Alejandro De La Campa told reporters on a conference call Monday

The roots of the challenge now go back years. 

“We have in this country a chronic problem of, particularly in underserved areas and poorer areas, where the infrastructure for both drinking water and wastewater is outdated, in need of repair, in need of upgrade,” said Tom Burke, a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  

The island has primary responsibility over its water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency supports and guides this, and also enforces the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Puerto Rico is “unfortunately reflective of a system that broke down and a lack of investment in the infrastructure and provision of clean water, compounded by most likely an island system that's really complicated,” Burke, who previously worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, said.

Hurricane Maria crippled the island, leaving residents without power and hospitals damaged and reliant on generators. The island also saw widespread flooding, which comes with a risk of cross contamination of sewage and freshwater and can lead to waterborne illness.

In Puerto Rico, a “toxic mix” of “poverty and lack of access to clean water practically guarantees that you're going to see outbreaks of waterborne infections, particularly waterborne diarrheal disease,” said Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

This could include typhoid and the remote possibility of cholera, according to Hotez. 

Now, Puerto Rico is in the long process of recovering from the hurricane, and there’s hope the water systems will be improved from even before the hurricane. 

“We need an investment from the federal government in Puerto Rico's drinking water systems, in rebuilding Puerto Rico's infrastructure the right way,” Quintero said. “We need a commitment from the Puerto Rican government to ensure that the money is spent wisely and in the most environmentally sustainable and healthy way possible and that the [monitoring] continues.”

Rafael Bernal contributed.

This article has been updated.