On October 16, the governor of Puerto Rico announced some good news: 72 percent of Puerto Ricans now had running water to drink and bathe with — a huge improvement since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island on September 20, leaving most residents without water and power.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s figure came from the public water utility company, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, and is updated on the government’s website status.pr. As of Wednesday, the water company’s statistics said 75 percent of the island had water, with regions varying from 88 percent (the South) to 46 percent (the North).
But Vox’s review of publicly available information on the state of the water supply and interviews with local officials on the ground revealed a situation that is more dire than the official statistics suggest. Many towns on the island have been without running water for more than a month, and many that have it can’t count on it to be reliable.
“It’s so frustrating,” said Rosachely Rivera Santana, the mayor of Gurabo, a small town in the eastern interior, where the generator powering the local water plant keeps failing. “It makes no sense to give such a high statistic when the reality is so different.”
Even the government’s own data contradicts its optimistic narrative and shows how severely water services have been affected by the ongoing power outages. A detailed breakdown on the website shows which facilities are getting electricity. Only 15 out of 167 water treatment and distribution plants have regular power, and only 16 out of 2,186 water pumping stations are hooked to the power grid. Without electricity, water distribution sites can’t filter and pump water into homes.
Plus, the water company is telling residents the water out of the tap isn’t safe to drink. On its website, PREPA is urging those who have running water to boil it or purify it with chlorine tablets before drinking. With 75 percent of the island still without reliable electricity, boiling water is hard, if not impossible. Which is a reminder of just what a significant threat to health this breakdown in the municipal water system is.
So when Rosselló offered his upbeat claim last week about the widespread availability of potable water, he sparked a backlash on Twitter. When he sent a tweet with even more optimistic statistics a few days later, the response was just as harsh.
“I don’t know where, because in Dorado, the Puertos neighborhood has been without water for 15 days. Stop lying Mr. governor please!!!” replied one resident.
Joel Lugo Rosa, an engineer for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, told Vox in an email that the 75 percent statistic includes water plants that are running on generators. It also includes water tankers they’ve sent to communities to let residents fill up containers with drinking water.
He also acknowledged that the generators frequently break down or run out of fuel. “In many cases, water service is sporadic because we run out of diesel, or because of maintenance problems with the generators, which weren’t designed to run constantly. And most of Puerto Rico hasn’t had power from [the utility company] for more than a month,” he explained.
It will be impossible to provide regular water service until the electrical grid is repaired. Until then, Puerto Ricans will have to deal with sporadically available water services in many places.
Local officials are still struggling to get water to their towns
While Puerto Rico’s government insists that it’s gotten running water to most of the island, local mayors and city governments suggest that is far from true.
Gurabo Mayor Rosachely Rivera Santana laughed when I asked her on the phone if she believed the government statistics.
“We need to be realistic about what’s happening every day,” she said. “The truth is it changes constantly. Maybe there was one day when 72 percent had water, but then the next day it could have gone down to 30 [percent].”
Rivera said the local water plant in her town still has no electricity, so it can’t pump water into homes and businesses. She arranged to bring in a generator to provide partial power. With the help of water utility workers, she got running water to about 40 percent of residents at one point, until it started raining last week.
Flooding damaged the distribution and pumping systems and knocked out the delicate system they had rigged together.
“The generators and pipes are very sensitive,” she said. “It will take another six or seven days to get it working again, but then it will just shut down again.”
In Juncos, a town 5 miles away, Mayor Alfredo Alejandro Carrión told Primera Hora that 85 percent of residents didn’t have drinking water a month after the storm hit. He told the newspaper that he traveled to San Juan several times to request a generator for the water plant, but that FEMA and the National Guard were unable to get him one:
Vox emailed more than a dozen mayors across Puerto Rico, though many of the messages bounced back. When reached via Facebook last week, the mayors’ offices in Arecibo and Guaynabo — two of Puerto Rico’s largest cities, with a combined population of about 186,000 people — said that they didn’t have regular running water either.
“As of this moment, we don’t have regular water service. We still have many areas that aren’t getting any water,” wrote a staff member who works for Angel Pérez Otero, the mayor of Guaynabo.
Many people without water lash out on social media
Volunteers for the website CrowdRescueHQ have been scanning social media and news reports in Puerto Rico for signs of people who still need help. (They share the data with FEMA and emergency responders.) Many of the 60 reports they’ve collected since October 16 convey a desperate situation for families.
In one case, volunteers cited a television news story in Peñuelas, a town on the southern coast. “Water is urgently needed, both in the shelters and for the general population.” It was posted the same day the governor announced the statistics.
So was another post from a few miles away in Yauco: “Families in rural areas without drinkable water.”
And this one: “Residents of Mayagüez, San German, Cabo Rojob, Lajas, Añasco, Hormigueros, Moca, Aguada, Aguadilla, San Sebastian and other villages are concerned about the lack of potable water, bread, coffee, and ice among other primary necessities.”
Many are also taking to Twitter to beg for water service, as this woman did on October 23: “Arecibo’s Hato neighborhood, 33 days without water… PLEASE EVEN IF IT’S JUST ONE DAY A WEEK, WE NEED IT.”
Misleading water statistics could affect how much support Puerto Rico gets going forward
Puerto Ricans without regular running water right now are faced with three options: They can buy drinking water, look for free water supplies, or, in the worst-case scenario, drink water from streams and lakes.
Right now, more than 30 days since the storm, FEMA is still delivering bottled water to more than a dozen distribution sites on the island. The mayors of each town often have to pick up those supplies themselves and distribute them to residents. That kind of setup isn’t a long-term solution, especially because it’s not enough water for people to bathe in or wash their clothes.
CBS correspondent David Begnaud puts that in perspective:
Giving the impression that three-quarters of the island has clean running water is more than a public relations stunt. It could create a perception in Washington, DC, that Puerto Rico is recovering more quickly than it actually is, and could impact how much money Congress is willing to put in the FEMA disaster relief fund — where reconstruction grants come from.
Former FEMA officials with decades of experience in disaster zones have told Vox that this is most difficult and complicated mission FEMA has ever faced. They say Puerto Rico’s reconstruction will take years and billions of dollars in federal money.
If the local government is misleading the public about the status of the recovery, it puts less pressure on members of Congress to make sure FEMA and Puerto Rico have enough resources in the long run. And it’s really pissing off Puerto Ricans who want running water right now.