By Mark Healy
On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, producing sustained winds up to 155 mph. As the twisting gale of the Category 4 hurricane ripped through lush green canopies, mountain creeks swelled into gushing rivers, producing catastrophic floods that devastated communities throughout the island. When the storm finally cleared, Maria was classified as the 10th strongest hurricane on record, and the third-most expensive in U.S. history.
The island’s power system was absolutely crippled; not a single one of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million energy consumers had access to the electricity grid in the immediate aftermath. Repair needs would be extensive, with 80% of power lines severed by winds or falling branches.
Less obvious than the loss of power was the rapidly deteriorating water supply, which threatened a humanitarian catastrophe in the island’s remote communities. Five months after the hurricane hit, I traveled with a group of fellow engineering students to Maria’s “ground zero” to see for myself what engineers could do to help the water crisis. As it turned out, Puerto Rico’s problems were as much political and cultural as hydrological.
As the first rays of morning sunlight clipped across the green hills of central Puerto Rico, our convoy of black SUVs rolled south toward home base in Ponce. After a long night of traveling, weary-eyed students laid their heads to rest on the windows, while my eyes were fixed on the spectacular landscape. I avidly took in the island’s natural beauty: orange flowers blooming high above the forest canopy; expansive valleys bordered by rocky walls; brightly colored homes straddling gushing creeks. However, evidence of a catastrophe was also readily available. The same creeks were filled with debris, from twisted tree branches to rusting car parts. Homes were topped with blue tarps, their corrugated metal roofs ripped off in swirling winds. The central highway we drove along was lined with the mangled pieces of fallen street signs.
“Just after the hurricane, there were no leaves on any of these trees,” our guide said as we bumped along the empty road. “The winds ripped them all off. The land was brown, the ugliest I’ve ever seen Puerto Rico.”
In the half-year since the storm struck, the island’s beauty had revived, but recovery efforts for the island inhabitants were crawling along at a snail’s pace. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, less than half of the island’s population had access to clean tap water. Contaminants abounded. Sheet metal structures throughout the island had been scalped, depositing corrugated roofs into stagnant pools. The abundance of blossoming foliage shaded mounds of garbage still left uncollected adjacent to water sources. Although bright green leaves everywhere indicated nature’s revival, many Puerto Ricans were still struggling to find clean drinking water.
After a few precious hours of sleep in Ponce, our team of engineering students set out for our first testing site, a remote, little town named Sierritas. Located just kilometers from the highest peak in Puerto Rico, Sierritas’ name — “little mountains” — comes with a hint of irony. As our guide thwacked through a dense forest of sugar cane, vines, and roots, he offered a detailed introduction to the island’s water infrastructure. Residents told us that a municipal water company known as PRASA supplies treated water for a price of about $13 per month to communities around major cities such as Ponce, Mayaguez, and San Juan. However, homes in more rural locations or higher up the mountains rarely receive PRASA service. Only 10% of families that we spoke to during our time in Puerto Rico had access to PRASA water. Instead, many families received water used for daily tasks such as cooking and showering from shallow pools constructed generations ago.
Having stumbled along the narrow mountain path for what felt like an eternity, we arrived at the source pool for the water used in Sierritas. Water trickled over shaded rocks, collecting in a large basin. A long white pipe pointed between two rocks drew in water before snaking down the mountain to the village. All that prevented detritus from clogging the pipe was a grated cap, coated with leaves and cleaned by hand once every two weeks. Sweat dripped down our faces as we set about our assigned tasks. Sample vials were filled from the pool, reagent powder packets were emptied into the vials, and machines cast beams of light through the tinted water: all in an effort to determine the concentration of toxic metals in the water. Within minutes, students were reporting numbers that raised concern for the water quality of Sierritas. Testing revealed high levels of suspended solids, indicative of particles floating within the water. Although these particles might be innocuous, they could also disguise pathogens that cause diarrhea and severe dehydration.
We filled plastic jugs with gallons of water to lug back to a laboratory for further testing. On the other side of the pool, tests revealed the presence of the heavy metal manganese. Manganese concentrations were likely boosted by disturbances in creek soils due to the heavy rainfall that accompanied Maria. The impacts of manganese pollution might not appear for many years in the local population, but prolonged manganese intake, by damaging the central nervous system, can lead to developmental disabilities in children. Manganese is regulated by the EPA’s secondary drinking water standards but, even before Hurricane Maria, just 30% of Puerto Rico had access to water that complied with the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, a water quality disparity would become even more apparent as our testing continued.
Maria truly was a perfect storm. Just two weeks before it hit Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma had pummeled the Caribbean. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warehouse on Puerto Rico had been drained of supplies by Irma, so workers there were totally unprepared for a direct hit only days later. Puerto Rico’s ambiguous political identity amplified the damage of the hurricane double whammy: As a territory of the United States but not a state, Puerto Rico’s access to resources after a natural disaster is hampered by red tape.
Most notably, the Jones Act necessitated that all shipments to the island be carried by U.S.-built and -operated ships (although Puerto Rico was given a waiver for the act shortly after Maria). Furthermore, transportation infrastructure on the island made distribution of goods from ports extremely challenging, creating supply bottlenecks. These logistical challenges were best highlighted by the revelation in September 2019, exactly one year after the storm, of 20,000 pallets of water bottles left undistributed on an airport runway. With debris strewn throughout the countryside and floating in pools that fed rural water supplies, this bottled water could have provided critical relief for thousands of desperate Puerto Ricans, but went unused due to failures in emergency management and communication.
Back at our hotel in Ponce after our first day, tests on the gallons of water carried away from the field site revealed more health threats for the residents of Sierritas. Biological samples confirmed the presence of bacteria, including E. coli. A Leptospirosis outbreak in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria had left at least 26 dead, but clearly, the freshwater emergency wasn’t over. For U.S. citizens in most of the mainland, such bacteria are typically neutralized during disinfection processes. But not in Sierritas. The lack of treatment processes that we take for granted was proving deadly for far too many Puerto Ricans.
With Maria’s devastation amplifying existing poor water conditions, drastic steps are needed to improve the struggling island’s water quality. Nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam have stepped in to provide household-scale water filters. Oxfam extensively distributed “Big Berkey” water filters to affected communities. These filters have a capacity of 2.5 gallons and are kept in household kitchens. But the Big Berkey filter costs more than $250, and its replacement filtration unit is $120 — prices prohibitive in disadvantaged communities, where the average weekly wage is $500 or less. While the work of NGOs in providing the Berkey filter as a stopgap solution is significant, there must be a longer-term plan as the lifespan of the filters expires.
A strategy must be developed to ensure a resilient water supply capable of withstanding the inevitable natural disasters, and political disruptions, of the future. Resiliency could be improved through the expansion of PRASA distribution networks, but this is a process that will take significant time and investment. The first step is ensuring that targeted consumers are onboard and educated about the benefits of fully treated water. Many consumers in disadvantaged communities are averse to the taste of chemicals added through treatment processes by PRASA. Even before Hurricane Maria, residents of the mountains of Puerto Rico, such as the villagers of Sierritas, have not been exposed to chlorine and are thus not as accustomed to its taste.
To start a new trend of acceptance for chlorine disinfection, educational programs on its effectiveness should begin immediately. Pamphlets from PRASA and NGOs as well as instructional visits from water professionals could begin to build a positive association in islanders’ minds between the presence of chlorine and the absence of dangerous pathogens. Discussions in school classrooms would encourage students to pass along information about clean water to their parents and promote safe drinking water awareness among the next generation. Over time, a wave of acceptance for engineered water treatment could sway community leaders to seek municipal connections to PRASA systems, laying the groundwork for mountain communities in Puerto Rico to access safe, regulated water. Practicing water treatment techniques in the villages consuming the water will improve trust in the processes by bringing the actual technology, and not just the finished product, to the residents.
Puerto Rico’s rough topography adds to the challenge, making it difficult to connect homes to the existing water distribution network. The great elevation differences between a mountain community such as Sierritas and a treatment plant in the valley below would require expensive and energy-intense pumping to provide water at the same pressure at the two locations. As such, one solution is to center treatment facilities for mountain villages in the communities themselves. An added benefit to opening new water treatment facilities in remote areas would be the creation of jobs and expertise in the water industry. Systems could also be constructed with emergency interconnects, where water could be shared between villages in the event of damage to a treatment facility during a future disaster.
A year after Hurricane Maria, many residents of Puerto Rico’s central regions still draw water from sources contaminated by the storm’s destruction. These soluble remnants are strained by household filters supplied by non-governmental organizations. In the face of future Marias, a focus on resilient infrastructure is needed to shift treatment procedures from reactive to proactive. Any improvement to Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure will require significant and continued investment. While the island’s energy concerns were highlighted after Hurricane Maria — and even addressed somewhat by celebrity donations and Tesla battery packs — water quality issues received very little publicity. Drawing attention to water rights for the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico is a crucial step in bringing these mountain communities water that they can trust won’t kill them.
Even in my few days experiencing the water crisis in the central highlands of Puerto Rico, the staggering inequities between water quality in Sierritas and what we are accustomed to on the U.S. mainland were crystal clear. Although the terrifying winds of Maria have passed, the winds of change still need to blow across Puerto Rico.
Mark Healy is from St. Charles, Ill. He is a 2018 Illinois graduate in Civil and Environmental Engineering and now works as an environmental engineering consultant for Trotter and Associates Inc. in Chicago. This article was written for ESE 360, the introductory CEW course, in Spring 2018.