CAGUAS, Puerto Rico – Raw sewage flows into rivers and reservoirs in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. People without running water bathe and wash their clothes in contaminated waterways, and some islanders have drunk water from doomed wells.
Almost a month after the hurricane made landfall, Puerto Rico is just beginning to face a massive environmental emergency with no clear end in sight.
“I think this will be the most difficult environmental response after a hurricane our country has ever seen,” said Judith Enck, who served as the regional administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency which includes Puerto Rico. under President Barack Obama.
With hundreds of thousands of people still without running water and 20 of the island’s 51 wastewater treatment plants out of service, there is growing concern about contamination and disease.
“People in the United States cannot understand the scale and scope of what is needed,” said Drew Koslow, an environmentalist with the Ridge to Reefs nonprofit who recently spent a week in Porto. Rico.
Puerto Rico has a long history of industrial pollution, and environmental problems have worsened due to neglect during a decade of economic crisis. A dozen overloaded landfills remain open despite orders from the EPA to shut them down because local governments say they don’t have the money.
Twelve days after Maria made landfall, less than 20% of the island’s power grid was back online. Authorities say running water has been restored for 72 percent of the island’s population. The water authority says it is safe to drink, although the health department still recommends boiling or disinfecting it.