CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — More than half a million people in Puerto Rico were left without water service Wednesday — three days after Hurricane Fiona hit U.S. territory — sending many queuing for hours filling water truck jugs and hours fetching water from mountain runoff.
Sweat poured down people’s faces in a long line of cars in the northern mountain town of Caguas, where the government had set up a water tanker, one of at least 18 so-called ‘oases’ set up across the island.
The setback has been infuriating for many across an island once again left without basic services following a storm.
“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but it was worse,” said Gerardo Rodríguez in the southern coastal town of Salinas, referring to the 2017 hurricane that left nearly 3,000 dead and demolished the electrical grid in the United States.
Fiona dumped around two feet of rain over parts of Puerto Rico before moving across eastern Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Swelling to Category 4 strength, the storm was poised to pass close to Bermuda late Thursday or Friday, then hit far eastern Canada Friday evening, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
READ MORE: How to Help Hurricane Fiona Victims in Puerto Rico
The storm wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico’s power grid, which had been patched but never fully rebuilt after Maria caused a blackout that lasted 11 months in some locations.
As of Wednesday afternoon, around 70% of Puerto Rican customers lacked power, according to government figures.
In Caguas, the air conditioning in Emayra Veguilla’s car was not working, so the 34-year-old bus driver propped a small fan on the passenger seat. Earlier in the day, she blasted the song “Hijos del Canaveral” (“Son of the Sugar Cane Field”), written by Puerto Rican hip-hop star René Pérez as an ode to Puerto Rico and the bravery of his people.
“I needed a dose of patriotism,” she said. “I needed strength to start over.”
Veguilla had lined up on Tuesday, only to be told the water had run out and another truck wouldn’t be available until the next day.
Some people in front of Veguilla gave up and left, with tensions growing as people waited.
“Move!” shouted a driver, fearing that people would try to intervene.
Some who saw the line chose instead to drive to a nearby road where fresh water ran down the mountainside via a bamboo pipe someone had set up.
Greg Reyes, a 24-year-old English teacher, stood in line in muddy flip-flops to fetch water for himself, his girlfriend and their cat. He had brought a large bag containing all the empty containers he could find in their house, including more than a dozen small water bottles.
READ MORE: Puerto Rico suffers ‘catastrophic’ damage from Hurricane Fiona, governor says
Reyes said he and his partner have been buying water since Fiona arrived but can no longer afford to do so.
Behind him stood 67-year-old retiree William Rodríguez, surrounded by three large buckets and four 1-gallon containers. He was living in Massachusetts and decided to move back to Puerto Rico about six months ago.
“But I think I’m going back,” he said, shaking his head.
People in line complained about the slow recovery and accused the government of not helping them.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Juan Santos, a 70-year-old pensioner who held his 5-year-old grandson’s hand. “We are suffering.”
None of those online had power either, and many wondered if the restoration would take as long as with Hurricane Maria.
Power company officials initially said it would take a few days for power to be restored, but then appeared to backtrack on Tuesday night, saying they faced numerous hurdles.
“Hurricane Fiona severely impacted power infrastructure and generation facilities across the island. We want to make it abundantly clear that restoration and revitalization efforts continue and are affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorating equipment and downed lines,” said Luma, the company which operates the transmission and distribution of electricity.
Officials said crews found several substations underwater and inaccessible.
But Luma said he plans to restore power Wednesday to much of Puerto Rico’s northern coast, which Fiona has largely spared.
READ MORE: After knocking out power in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona hits the Dominican Republic
The hum of generators could be heard all over the territory as people grew more and more exasperated.
“I continue to hope that by the end of the day, a large part of the population will benefit from these services,” Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday and the agency said it was sending hundreds more people to bolster local response efforts.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Health and Human Services has declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico and deployed a few teams to the island.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands, authorities reported relatively light damage and no fatalities, although the eye of the Category 4 storm passed near Grand Turk, the island’s capital of the small British territory, on Tuesday.
“Turks and Caicos has had a phenomenal experience over the past 24 hours,” Vice Governor Anya Williams said. “He certainly came with his share of challenges.”
The Hurricane Center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 km/h) on Wednesday and was centered about 675 miles (1,090 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, heading north at 8mph (13kph).
Fiona killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and two others in Puerto Rico swept away by flooded rivers. Two died in the Dominican Republic: one killed by a falling tree and the other by a falling electric pole.
Two additional deaths were reported in Puerto Rico following the blackout: a 70-year-old man burned to death after trying to fill his running generator with gasoline and a 78-year-old man, according to the police, inhaled poison gas from his Generator.