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Much of Puerto Rico has no running water — and the problem is not just cleanliness

Tim Johnson, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

NARANJITO, Puerto Rico -- In households across Puerto Rico, water has become a precious commodity. Stored in jars, bottles and tubs, it is the once-overlooked essential that now occupies full attention in daily life.

Water is used and reused. And its scarcity means that for many Puerto Ricans, their bodies, their homes and their clothes are not as clean as they would like.

"The majority of our colleagues are washing their clothes in a creek," said Linaida Santiago Arroyo, a nurse at a kidney dialysis center.

Limited water particularly dismays Santiago because she has two young children, an infant only 4 months old and a 4-year-old boy, "and I don't want them getting sick."

"We don't have enough water to clean things up. There's mud. There's garbage that they still haven't picked up," she said. "It can attract insects that then come closer to the house."

Since Hurricane Maria lashed Puerto Rico two weeks ago, knocking out the water system for more than half the island's 3.4 million people, every drop does double duty.

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"When I bathe the baby, I use the same water to flush the toilet," Santiago said.

As the island thirsts for more water, medical experts say it is one of the factors that make them deeply concerned over a possible spike in infectious diseases in coming weeks. Nine out of 10 homes on the island still have no electricity, meaning fans and air conditioning units aren't available to stave off pesky mosquitos carrying illness in the storm's aftermath.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says 64 of the island's 68 hospitals are open, but Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Thursday only 25 are hooked up to the power grid. Others have generators and rely on erratic diesel supplies and suffer occasional breakdowns.

"Their generators aren't meant to last weeks and months on end. They need fuel. They need logistics support," said Navy Capt. Kevin Buckley, commanding officer of medical facilities aboard the USNS Comfort, a massive naval hospital ship that arrived in San Juan earlier this week and sailed for Ponce on the island's southern coast Thursday.

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