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  • Writer's pictureSextant Foundation

The Critical Link for Puerto Rico Communities

Our volunteers in Puerto Rico are providing a critical link between the island’s rural communities and the government command center in San Juan. In many cases, they are the first point of contact between the community and FEMA, relaying information about immediate medical, food and water needs.

The community water systems they’re assessing are decentralized and referred to as “Non-PRASA”  – PRASA is the water authority that provides water to most urban areas in Puerto Rico.

Joe Schaefer from the US EPA Environmental Response Team comments on the importance of our volunteers’ work:

Project HOPE and Sextant Foundation offering to assist with the evaluation process was the missing critical piece in our Non-PRASA assessment work. As EPA expanded our operational footprint to conduct more assessments throughout Puerto Rico, it identified a need to have a skilled technical evaluation team in place to summarize the findings so they could be routed to FEMA and NGO organizations in a position to offer assistance. Sextant’s offer to lend their technical expertise towards these evaluations filled a huge resource gap and has allowed us to turn two weeks of assessments into actionable intelligence. Without the assistance of Project HOPE and Sextant we would not have been in that position for days, if not a week. Continued efforts by subject matter experts to provide this vital evaluation of the response data will allow us to rapidly turn field visits into improved conditions for the local community.

Samantha Sharp, Sextant volunteer from Fall Creek Engineering, recounts her experience while in country:

Flying into San Juan, the landscape was littered with so many trees, as if a box of toothpicks had broken over the land. Street signs, traffic lights, power poles, billboards, and other structures had all been destroyed by the hurricane. San Juan was in a recovering state, with lots of active cleanup work in progress. During my first day, there was electricity and running water in San Juan; however, for the rest of my time on the island, the power was out. Many stores and restaurants were open and operating with generators.

My work in Puerto Rico consisted of both coordinating logistics for the water system field assessments and completing assessments in three communities. We first made connections with the various people we would be working with, and assembled our field team and the necessary equipment. We worked with the EPA and DOH – both agencies were staged along with FEMA, the military, and additional federal and Puerto Rican-level agencies in a government command center in San Juan.

I completed water system assessments within the areas of Comerio, Corozol, and Naranjito. These communities are in the mountains near the center of the island. Many of them had not been contacted by FEMA at this stage during the recovery, and we were to be the first point of contact. We also gathered data on the needs of the community for food, water, and medical assistance.

There are an incredible number of landslides in the mountains. Homes have been destroyed and roads are blocked by fallen debris and have washed out in many areas. There is very little power in the mountains with the infrastructure completely decimated by the hurricane and subsequent landslides.

Fortunately, we were able to get to the communities we intended to visit. We had to wait in some areas where the road reduced to one lane or where maintenance crews were actively clearing landslides. We experienced flash floods that have been occurring since the hurricane due to the saturated state of the soils, the changes in the watershed hydrology due to all the slides and the loss of tree canopy, and clogged stormwater infrastructure.

There are approximately 260 non-PRASA public water systems that need to be evaluated. The majority of the water systems are groundwater wells with disinfection via chlorination tablets. There are some surface water systems that varied from no treatment, disinfection only, and filtration and disinfection systems. Some water systems are operating, especially those in urban areas. Many systems are not because most of the island is without power and generators are not available. We spoke with residents and observed that in these rural mountain communities, many people are relying on rudimentary gravity lines to supply raw surface water at informal oases on the side of the road. These systems were installed out of necessity after the hurricane because there was no other water available.

The water is raw surface water without filtration or disinfection systems. We asked several residents if they were able to treat the water in any way; the only confirmed treatment was disinfection with bleach (8 drops to a gallon of untreated water). Boiling water is not practical due to the demand on fuel and bottled water is not readily available. The DOH received a large shipment of chlorination tablets and is planning to begin distribution to the communities along with instructions on how to disinfect the water.

There are a lot of resources in San Juan for the hurricane relief but linking resources to where they are needed and coordinating logistics is essential. I was amazed at how quickly efforts were mobilized from private organizations once the field data was provided and we made our recommendations. A new package water treatment system was operational at one of our assessment sites only two days after we visited the site.

The EPA and DOH are collaborating with an NGO, Water Mission, that has the resources to import needed materials, install systems, and train in-country people to operate and maintain the systems. They have 55 package water treatment systems (including filtration and disinfection) on the island that are ready to be installed as well as solar well pump systems. They are very appreciative of having field engineers on the ground to fill the missing the link to know where the systems should be installed.

The goal of the response is both a short-term, to provide safe drinking water as soon as possible, and long-term, to bring the water systems back online. This is going to be very challenging. My understanding is that the Puerto Rico power authority PREMA is estimating returning power to 75% of the island by the end of the year and do not have an estimate for the remaining 25% of the island. From what I have seen in these rural communities, it could take a very long time to restore power as the power poles and lines were almost all completely destroyed. Instead of reliance on the grid, these rural community water systems would be best equipped with solar power systems where practical and back-up generators. It is critical to restore the water systems with redundant and reliable power supply to create a resilient system that will be operational after the next hurricane hits. In a way, the complete destruction of the power grid in Puerto Rico presents a unique opportunity to rebuild with more sustainable systems.

I observed an incredible response from the communities I visited. Most had self-organized without receiving much assistance from the government. In some cases, water systems were partially or fully operational with generators available from community members and these systems were also supplying water to neighboring communities, with people transporting water from the water system to fill their own home cisterns.

I also observed that in some ways the hurricane had affected people equally regardless of income level. Many communities were prepared to purchase new generators for their systems but were not able to because of barriers with shipments to the island. As a result, all people in these communities, regardless of income level, were desperate to obtain drinking water and power. People also had to resort to low-technology ways of life. Most have clothes washers in their homes but are not able to use them. We observed vendors selling old fashioned wash boards on the side of the road for people to use to wash their clothes.

I learned a tremendous amount during my time in Puerto Rico. I learned that in a disaster situation it is important to be flexible as things are constantly changing. Connecting resources efficiently is crucial when operating in a post-disaster environment. I was sad to leave after gaining momentum with the field assessments. My time on the island was incredibly limited and it would be so great to return for a longer period. If there is the opportunity, I would love to continue with the water assessments and any additional engineering assistance.

One piece of the equation that I have not previously mentioned are the wastewater systems on the island. These are not currently the focus of the field assessments but will need to be evaluated and ensured operational to avoid contamination of drinking water systems and the environment.

Please keep Puerto Rico in your thoughts and prayers. And please continue to do so even when the media starts focusing on other news. Puerto Rico is going to need our support as they continue with rebuilding efforts after the destruction that the hurricanes caused.

The hurricanes stripped all the leaves from the trees on the islands, but while I was there, I saw new growth, which was a hopeful sight.

You can support our continued efforts to bring clean water to the people of Puerto Rico by donating here.

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