The U.S. Could Have Avoided Puerto Rico’s Water Crisis

Lambert: A good round-up, but this looks to me like the same pattern of wierdly ineffectual response that we saw for Puerto Rico’s roads, without which any water solutions will be difficult to deliver. The author’s conclusion that “ultimately, Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory might be behind its slow recovery” could be too mild; one might rephrase “status as a U.S. territory” as “Puerto Rico’s de jure colonial status,” and then ask how many other jurisdictions have de facto colonial status. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that vast swaths of the continent are simply being written off; the reasons may differ, but the bottom line is the same. Of course, today could be my day to be overly cynical.

By Justine Calma, a freelance multimedia journalist reporting across the U.S. and internationally on health, climate change, migration and human rights. Her work has appeared on NBC News, PBS, WNYC, PRI’s The World, Quartz, The GroundTruth Project, Salon and Huffington Post. Originally published at Grist.

The numbers associated with the current situation in Puerto Rico, one month after Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory, are baffling.

More than 2.5 million residents are still without power. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is able to offer 200,000 meals to Puerto Ricans daily — but it needs to feed 2 million people. Perhaps most baffling, or at least exasperating, President Donald Trump gives himself a perfect 10 for his response to the storm’s aftermath.

One of the most pressing issues on the island is access to clean water. Officials estimate that more than 1 in 3 residents in Puerto Rico doesn’t have it. Aid agencies on the ground say the number is closer to 1 in 2. Families are drinking water contaminated with sewage and dead animals. Others are drawing from toxic Superfund sites. There have been at least 10 cases of leptospirosis from drinking contaminated water — and officials are investigating four deaths which may have been caused by waterborne bacteria.

Simply put, this is an ongoing public health crisis.

Puerto Rico was in a tough spot before Maria tore through the Caribbean island. Economic and political factors complicated disaster response: The territory was already facing a debt crisis. And limited local resources and poor roads made it difficult to get supplies to storm survivors.

But aid agencies and relief experts believe the current predicament could have been avoided. There are international standards and a clear blueprint for how to get safe water to people after a disaster. But so far, the federal response has failed in providing both immediate help and longer-term solutions — and part of the reason for that could boil down to discrimination.

“We’re a very capable nation, yet we don’t seem to have deployed our capabilities in this instance,” says John Mutter, a Columbia University professor and international disaster relief expert. “This isn’t rocket science. We know what we’re supposed to do. The fact that we’re not doing it needs explanation.”

According to the relief organization Oxfam, the minimum standards for disaster response have not been met. The aid group follows Sphere minimum standards — a set of universal benchmarks for humanitarian responses established in 1997 — which require, for instance, four gallons of water to be provided per day per person for bathing, cooking, and drinking. The water should be delivered in safe containers through water trucks, water bladders, or filters. And initial assistance is supposed to arrive within three to five days after a disaster.

In this case, there has not been enough overall coordination of relief, according to Martha Thompson, Oxfam America’s program coordinator for disaster response in Puerto Rico. Truck deliveries of bottled water are sporadic, and she says that the military has sent water trucks to several sites without providing clean containers to safeguard the water.

U.S. Northern Command, which is coordinating the military’s aid efforts in Puerto Rico, confirmed reports that people are using potentially contaminated containers — often washed out detergent bottles — to collect water. In response, it’s distributing five-gallon collapsable buckets to residents to avoid the possibility of clean water being contaminated by dirty receptacles.

“The military is focused on delivering safe and drinkable water,” says Navy Lieutenant Sean McNevin. “We are very concerned about the safety of Puerto Ricans affected by the hurricane and we’ll make those recommendations and adjustments to what we deliver based on what we know on the ground.”

According to Peter Gleick, a climate and water scientist with the Bay Area public policy nonprofit the Pacific Institute, the U.S. government could have taken steps prior to or immediately after Maria hit Puerto Rico to speed up recovery. Within days of the storm’s landfall, Gleick recommended that the United States quickly move military assets, like desalination units that pull salt out of ocean water, to the islands.

He adds that there should be more aggressive water testing to assure residents that they are using safe water sources. “The idea that there are communities forced to take water from wells on Superfund sites is completely inexcusable,” Gleick says.

On Thursday, CNN reported that Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineer who ran tests on the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, had concluded that samples taken from wells at the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Superfund Site, near Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan, were safe to drink.

Still, residents searching for water on toxic sites or relying on bottled water are the sort of problems the aid community says should have been dealt with long before the one-month mark. Recovery efforts should be transitioning into more sustainable long-term solutions.

“It’s unacceptable that people are still depending on water bottle deliveries for day-to-day survival,” says Oxfam’s Thompson, adding that people continue to fear that future shipments won’t arrive.

By now, what’s needed are water filters and solar-powered generators that communities can use to run pumps to access wells. There also needs to be significant improvement to the territory’s municipal water system, which wasn’t in great shape before the storm hit.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a report that found that Puerto Rico had the highest rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory in the United States.

“There’s a question as to whether or not the population was receiving safe drinking water before the storm,” says Adrianna Quintero, NRDC’s director of partner engagement. “So we can only expect that it’s going to be worse post-storm.”

The island’s current safe water shortage is closely tied to power outages, says Peter Gleick. With more than 70 percent of the island lacking power, he says, wastewater treatment and water delivery systems have stalled out.

“This isn’t just a water problem,” Gleick says. “It’s an energy problem.”

Ultimately, Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory might be behind its slow recovery. As part of the United States, the island hasn’t seen the type of international aid that an independent developing country might receive. And yet Puerto Ricans have had to assert their U.S. citizenship to a federal government that allocates them no say in the electoral college or a Congress representative who can vote on legislation.

“There’s this idea that these are not American citizens who are going through this, which is blatantly false,” Quintero says. “I think there’s an element of discrimination there.”

According to Columbia’s Mutter, FEMA’s response to hurricanes Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida seemed to show that it had learned its lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Critics attributed the agency’s slow response to the 2005 storm and the resulting humanitarian emergency in part to the fact that they affected a primarily black and poor population.

“Now it just seems like they’ve forgotten their lessons,” Mutter says about FEMA. “It seems callous, but it looks like maybe they don’t care as much about Puerto Rico.”

FEMA did not respond to requests for comment.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló seemed to agree with Mutter when he met with President Trump in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “Give the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico the adequate resources,” Rosselló pleaded. “Treat us the same as citizens in Texas and Florida and elsewhere.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. rd

    You can rig up a simple safe water supply with a five gallon pail, a drill, a bucket adapter, a Sawyer filter, and some hose. Some of their filters will process enough water by gravity that one set up could supply dozens of people per day.

    This is not a permanent solution but is something that could be dropped out of a helicopter to a village very easily.

  2. HotFlash

    Canada has a disaster assistance response team (DART) that includes water purification equipment. We used to have a whole ship that did that, but IIRC it was dismantled just after Katrina under Harper’s Conservative govt, of course the Liberals haven’t replaced it, that’s how the ratchet works. I wonder if they have been asked to help? Can’t find anything in the news.

    I remember one of our Coast Guard ships with water being turned away from Katrina, and Toronto Hydro’s crack line-down team was on standby to go, but the call never came — a friend on the team told me, that was never in any news.

    1. wilroncanada

      They didn’t show their “Brownie” badges.
      Sorry. Just being overtly cynical.

      Hot Flash–Isn’t that what neoliberal parties are for? Just like the dynamic Democrat/Republican duo, the Liberal/Conservative parties in Canada work in tandem. The neocons initiate reactionary legislation,or reverse previous progressive measures that somehow snuck through, then the neoliberals regain power and somehow can’t find the means, or find some excuse (usually the ‘we can’t afford it’ excuse) to turn the tide. And in terms of foreign policy, both have the same aims, just some different benefactors.

    2. Scott

      I’ve studied trains and Amtrak so in the course of that study I read that during Katrina the Director of Amtrak offered their capabilities to Bush for safe fast lots of people evacuation of those who needed to be evacuated. Bush is reported to have declined the offer because of GOP/C.S.A. anti Amtrak policies.
      I don’t know when even the die hards of the Republican Party will turn towards a Party that uses their power not to do what is right for the majority, no matter the life and death issues involved.
      I had thought that Puerto Rico had been lucky to have been colonized in comparison to Haiti. Since the first thing the American engineers did when getting Puerto Rico was build on the island 13 water reservoirs.
      Later we are likely to find out that the Engineers who were sent to the island have told those who allocate resources and provide a solid logistical plan, have been overruled or ignored.

  3. MichaelSF

    Of course, today could be my day to be overly cynical.

    In this Modern World is it possible to be overly cynical?

  4. David

    A more objective review might be to compare the PR recovery with the US Virgin Islands recovery. There is a very informative website which provides daily detailed updates to the recovery effort in the USVI. The USVI infrastructure fared relatively better that PR during the passage of the two hurricanes, but they also appear to be better organized that the island to the west. I think one will find that PR’s recovery problems are more of a PR problem than a Fed problem.

  5. Lyle

    As to drinking water, notice that it rains a lot in PR, so where roofs are more or less intact it is possible to catch rain water and use it, as my grandparents in Southern Indiana did because the well water was undrinkable because of sitting on coal seams. I read that the folks in the British Virgin Islands can not understand the non use of rainwater in the more rural areas. (The statistics seen don’t break out the difference between rural and urban dwellers so we can see where the folks without water are, but many of the scenes seem to be rural). In the western US a lot of folks have rain barrels for irrigation, and they would likley be continuously overflowing in PR with all the rain. Note that fresh rain water is safe in general, in particular if you let the first few minutes of rain from the roof run off, and then start saving it. (plus you don’t have to worry about the water freezing in PR.) Note that as David suggested there are multiple web Sites listing USVI status one called St Croix source that posts daily updates about the power and water situation in the USVI.
    They are resetting poles and gradually extending the feeders to more parts of the island, and hope in a day or two to have the undersea cable between St. Thomas and St John back up to bring power to the main population center on St. John.

    1. lyle

      I managed to answer my own question in that 95% plus of PR occupants are on a public water system, which means a lot of energy is spent pumping water up hill. By Contrast in the USVI buildings not in heavily populated areas, or near sea level are required to include basement cisterns and roof water catchment to fill them. The water utility is also publicly owned. It is not clear why PR chose the more expensive solution for folks in the rural areas. It is an interesting question of what parly rural areas in the continental us have such high levels of utility water service? Typically small settlements use wells in the continental us. Clearly the USVI solution is a lot more resilient in that as long as the roof stays on you have water. (It seems to rain a lot in PR so just like the USVI the Cisterns are likley kept full.

  6. CarmenJulia RodriguezTorres

    Moments of crisis are moments of opportunity because they make crystal clear the shortcomings of what has been done without most thought. Islands in the Caribbean have required for years that houses have some kind of rain water collection system. Puerto Rico relied mostly on an outdated water distribution system highly reliant on fuel for pumping and thus vulnerable to this kind of disaster. Furthermore, many initiatives have been proposed to implement autonomous sources of energy – solar, wind, geothermal – but it was so easy to keep doing what was already in place and here we are now. NOW is the moment to demand a better way. If we succumb to the temptation of rebuilding what was there, then we will keep paying in dollars and human lives.

  7. VietnamVet

    My take on neo-liberalism and disaster capitalism is the premise that oligarchs burden everything with debt. Their rule #1 is to keep the “vig” (interest and rent payments) coming as long as possible. When it goes bankrupt, loot the remains. The current federal government gives the white-collar criminals a walk.

    Yes, there is prejudice against Puerto Rico; “they are not Americans”. But, the basic problem is that the island is already head over heels in debt. There is nothing to confiscate. It’s been blown apart. To repair the infrastructure, requires tax money from the rest of America and writing down the bad debt. I wish them luck. At least it is warm in the Caribbean. Only restoration of the New Deal will end the forever wars, alleviate the job losses and clean up the climate disasters that are ripping apart America.

    1. Ian

      Quick correction. Tax money would not pay for infrastructure repairs as fiat currencies don’t work like that. Sadly it is a very effective lie that the majority believe. Look into modern monetary theory, some excellent references on this site.

      1. VietnamVet

        I am way too old to believe that fiat money can be created digitally or out of nothing for long. But, government can do most anything it wants if the governed consent and available labor and resources are tasked to the project; including rebuilding Puerto Rico. It is accounting. It is just that our current government works to increase an oligarch’s wealth rather than providing jobs for its citizens.

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