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Puerto Rico Health Officials Worry About Contaminated Water Effects


It's been almost a month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. And nearly a third of the island still doesn't have any running water. This is raising health concerns, as you would think it would, especially in rural communities where restoring water service could take weeks, even months. NPR's Adrian Florido visited one of these communities in the mountains of central Puerto Rico.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: As we drove the narrow, winding road to Orocovis, every few miles, we came across a piece of PVC pipe sticking out of the mountainside, water flowing out as if from an open tap. They call these ojos de agua. Before the communities up here had water lines, people ran these pipes from nearby streams as a source of water. These days, they're more of a backup for when storms knock out the electricity needed to pump water up the mountain. Many people use them for bathing and cleaning. Some, like Ramon Luis, drink from them, too.


RAMON LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "This is the best there is," he says. "This is a blessing from God." Right now, though, it's also a nightmare for health workers like Dr. Alfredo Ayala.

ALFREDO AYALA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He says these ojos de agua are important culturally and socially here. But Hurricane Maria was so destructive that it killed lots of wildlife that's ended up in the rivers and streams that feed these pipes.

AYALA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Ayala and his colleagues fear outbreaks of disease from contaminated water. They were with a convoy of volunteer aid workers that we ran into as they were preparing to fan out across mountain communities that have received little government aid since the hurricane hit. Among the group was Nurse Erin Carrera.

ERIN CARRERA: The only way we're going to prevent an epidemic here is that we need to get the word out to everybody that the water that they think is OK - like, here in this town, where the water is so pure and beautiful, and people have been drinking it all their lives. And they need to understand that it's not the same water they were drinking before.

FLORIDO: We hop into the massive Humvee leading the volunteers up a road that, until recently, was impassable because of the landslide. It wasn't long before we came across another ojo de agua. As we drove up, we startled Cynthia Torres...


FLORIDO: ...Who was about to dip a head full of shampoo back under the pipe. A social worker, Cynthia Bojito, hopped out clutching a bag of chlorine tablets.

CYNTHIA BOJITO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She told Torres that even to bathe with this water should be treated. Some of the diseases the medics fear can be transmitted through small cuts in the skin, she said.

TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Torres said she didn't know that. And she left for home with a soapy head. It could be weeks or months before Orocovis and other rural communities get their water restored. It's hard to say for sure. For drinking, many here have been seeking out bottled water. But it's still hard to find. And help from the government has been slow to arrive in many rural towns. The island's water authority has been able to power one pump here. It installed several faucets along the side of a road. And all day, people like Rafael Maldonado show up to fill buckets, bottles and jugs.

RAFAEL MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: This water he drinks straight from the faucet - no boiling, no chlorine. But there's disagreement between Puerto Rican environmental officials and water officials about whether that is safe to do. So that's created uncertainty for Puerto Ricans turning on the tap, one uncertainty among many still facing the island as it tries to recover from the storm. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Orocovis, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF NESTOR TORRES'S "WINDOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.