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Puerto Ricans still don’t have reliable drinking water, and fears of contamination are rising

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been almost a month since Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico and killed at least 48 people. The island and its residents are still coming to grips with the scale of the devastation.

William Brangham brings us the latest.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Many Puerto Ricans are still in the dark, without electrical power. Hundreds of thousands still have no access to running water, and the rebuilding of the countless damaged homes, roads and facilities is just beginning.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that almost half the sewage treatment plants on the island are still out of service, increasing the risk of contamination and disease.

I’m joined now by David Begnaud. He’s a correspondent from CBS News who’s been doing some very strong reporting there from since when the storm hit, and is just back from his latest trip to the island.

David, welcome to the NewsHour.

I wonder. We saw many of your reports and others of people still three weeks out from the storm who are still drinking from streams and creeks. You heard — I mentioned this AP report about fears of contamination.

Can you just tell us what is going on there? How are people getting water now?

DAVID BEGNAUD, CBS News: Well, let me tell you this.

The governor of Puerto Rico said this morning that he’s aware of those reports and that they’re looking into it. What’s concerning, William, is that three weeks after the storm and at least a week after the allegations first surfaced that people might be trying to drink from toxic wells at what’s known as Superfund sites, the governor of Puerto Rico is still saying, we’re looking into it and telling people to stay out of rivers where sewage may be spilling into the river.

And, he said, we want them to stay away from the coastal areas.

How are people doing? They’re still desperate to get water. No one seems to be able to figure out how to get enough water to every single person on that island who needs it. And as long as people need water, it’s still an emergency phase.

Nearly four weeks later, no one seems to be able to move from the emergency to the recovery.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, people who are — we see them drinking out of these PVC pipes that they have kind of rigged and sort of poked into the side of a creek.

People are just drinking that water straight, without purification, without boiling it; is that right?

DAVID BEGNAUD: Absolutely.

Look, they have got the PVC pipes tapped into the mountains so that it’s coming out of the stream that way. And they literally are — I saw a woman walk up to a potable water tank that the military had brought in, and she had a Clorox bottle.

And I said, “Ma’am, you’re putting drinkable water in a Clorox bottle?”

And she said, “It’s all I have got.”

Now, that was a good scenario. The other scenarios are people right now who are drinking from streams and creeks and rivers who have no water filters, who have nothing, right? They’re just taking this water.

Now, listen, the government got a million water-purifying tablets within the last week. It took almost three weeks to get those. Now there’s a large push to bring in water filters.

I have got to tell you, most of the water filters I’m seeing brought in are coming from the private sector, and civilian samaritans who are getting 1,000 or more from the mainland and flying them over to Puerto Rico and personally hand-delivering them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s really incredible.

Medical facilities were another big — just a huge devastation on the island. I know you have been doing a lot of reporting on the USS Comfort.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is the huge Naval hospital that is now just offshore Puerto Rico.

But I understand it hasn’t been fully utilized. Can you tell us what your reporting has found there?

DAVID BEGNAUD: The two men running the ship told us that nearly 87 percent of the ship is empty. Sounds alarming, right? They have 200 beds, and 87 percent are empty.

Now, here’s what they said: We stand ready for whatever the government wants to do. We are waiting to be told by the government.

So, I went to the governor, and said exactly what’s happening. And he said: “Look, I’m not satisfied with what the protocol was from the beginning.”

He said, initially, they were prioritizing only the most critically ill patients go to the Comfort. And he said there was a layered process that was complicating things.

So, the governor, Ricardo Rossello, said: “I started to take out some of those layers, and I, said, listen, take people on the ship who may not be critically ill, but need good medical care and can’t get it at the hospital, where the lights are flickering and the A.C. is not running.”

That’s what the governor said.

Within a matter of hours, I got a tweet from a third-year medical student who said: “Let me tell you what a nightmare it has been to reach the Comfort.”

He said: “We have got a pediatric patient who desperately needs to get off this island, either to a hospital on the mainland or to the Comfort.”

And he said: “I went through Google and the local newspaper to find the number. I couldn’t find it.”

Now, here is how things work. Within about 30 minutes of that tweet going out and that medical student’s story being posted, the governor’s spokesperson responded with numbers that should be able to help.

The bottom line here, William, is that asking relentless questions and the good work of journalism is what’s making a difference there. It’s no one person. There’s no heroic work that’s being done by any journalist, other than people who are going back to the same officials and asking some of the same questions, relentlessly seeking the right answer that will make a difference.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the other pieces of reporting that you did that was very early in the story was this backlog of supplies trapped in container ships on the ports in Puerto Rico.

I understand some of that — some of those supplies are now moving. Can you tell us, are they getting to where they need to be throughout the island?

DAVID BEGNAUD: So, the shipping containers you’re talking about, about 3,000 sitting in the Port of San Juan, have been moved out, not all of them, but a majority of them.

And they were intended for grocery stores around the island. Right? So, those were private companies that had brought in these shipping containers, paid for the supplies, but couldn’t move them because their truck drivers were either at home, because the home had been destroyed, or the road was impassable.

More and more supplies are getting out. But let me tell you, the grocery stores around the island, they have a lot of nonperishables, Pringles, candy, cookies, all on the shelf.

But when you go to the meat section, it’s nearly 75 percent empty at the stores we have been to, the produce section 90 percent empty. And finding bottled water there is almost like playing a game.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: David Begnaud, CBS News, thank you so much for your reporting. Thanks for your time.


The post Puerto Ricans still don’t have reliable drinking water, and fears of contamination are rising appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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