Puerto Rican resident Yanira Rios collects spring water nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed her town of Utuado, which still has little running water or power. Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images

By Jennifer Bendery
12 October 2017

WASHINGTON (Huffington Post) – Water is rationed. Scabies is spreading. Grocery stores are lined with empty shelves, if they’re open at all. People are fainting as they wait in lines for hours in sweltering heat, because they have to check into a FEMA hub to get small amounts of food and supplies being guarded by armed officers. That’s if they can even make it to FEMA.

This is the jarring reality that greeted registered nurses Alicia Schwartz and Misty Richards when they arrived in Puerto Rico. They didn’t know each other before last week, when they flew into San Juan from New York and Oregon, respectively, to volunteer to help with the humanitarian crisis on the island ravaged by Hurricane Maria. Now they spend every night together, camped out in a vacated baseball stadium locker room with other volunteers trying to aid 3.4 million fellow Americans in their moment of need.

FEMA and military personnel have been leading relief efforts, but from the looks of it, something isn’t working. It’s been more than three weeks since the hurricane hit, and 36 percent of people still don’t have drinking water, according to a government website updated daily. About 84 percent still don’t have power.

And that’s if you think the data are accurate. In a phone interview, Schwartz and Richards laughed as HuffPost read aloud statistics from the government site. They say it’s way worse.

“That’s lies,” said Schwartz, 54. “First of all, we don’t even know if the water is drinkable. Where is FEMA collecting this information? This is not what we’re seeing.”

Schwartz said she’s met people who haven’t had much access to drinking water for weeks, so they keep filling up containers from rivers or mountain streams. But that water isn’t clean and can cause bacterial diseases, including leptospirosis, which is spread by animal urine. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Wednesday that at least 10 people have suspected cases of leptospirosis, and four deaths may be tied to it.

“Who tells them that they cannot drink this water?” asked Schwartz. “We had to stop people on the side of the road to Utuado, one of the places where water rushes by, and stop people from getting water there and teach them how to disinfect water.”

Richards, 47, said the idea that 86 percent of grocery stores are open, another statistic on the government website, seems off. In the towns she’s visited all over the island, most markets are closed or in dire conditions. She and Schwartz have spent time in about 20 towns so far, including Humacao, Fajardo, Utuado, Rio Grande and the outskirts of San Juan.

“There are long lines and empty shelves. I have met tons of people with pictures of empty shelves,” Richards said. “There is no meat to be had. Very limited amounts of dairy. That’s even in San Juan, where people are better off in an urban area.”

Neither of the nurses claims to have a full understanding of FEMA’s operations. They’ve been on the island for just over a week. They have next to no internet service, and they aren’t in regular contact with government officials. They just know what they’re seeing, and it’s nothing like President Donald Trump’s picture of a successful recovery effort. [more]

These Volunteer Nurses In Puerto Rico Fear FEMA Is Failing

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