Isolated communities in Puerto Rico struggle to regain water and power after Fiona

a landslide
Getting into the community of Cacao is a challenge. The 157 route is being cleared after major landslides caused by Hurricane Fiona blocked access. (Gabriella N. Báez for NPR)

OROCOVIS, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of thousands of people across Puerto Rico are still waiting for water and power to be restored following Hurricane Fiona. Fiona was just a category 1 hurricane when it hit. But it moved slowly and dropped more than 30 inches of rain on some areas, and the flooding washed out roads, isolating some mountain communities.

In the town of Orocovis, a mudslide blocked a major roadway, making it difficult for residents to get food, water and other necessities. A local construction company quickly got to work, removing tons of soil, vegetation and boulders that were blocking the road. By Thursday, a single lane had been cleared allowing some trucks containing food, water and fuel to reach the city.

people next to a truck
People in Orocovis line up to get food and other supplies being handed out by member of the National Guard and the Department of Family of Puerto Rico. (Gabriella N. Báez for NPR)

Other roads in the area collapsed when the ground under them washed away. In Cacao, a small community of scattered homes in the mountains, hundreds of people were stranded when the road connecting them with Orocovis collapsed. Local authorities surveyed the damage, declared it unsafe and closed the road. But residents soon convinced them to open a temporary road so they could at least get into Orocovis.

water bottles
Residents of Orocovis line up at the community sports coliseum. People like Jesus “Tito” Colón are using any kind of container — gallon jugs, cisterns — to fill with potable water. (Gabriella N. Báez for NPR)

Herbert Acosta, a civil engineer was part of crew working Thursday to stabilize the road. “Right now, we are putting barriers on both sides to make it safe,” he said. But he has concerns that more rain could bring additional flooding and lead to a total road collapse. “We are going to monitor it every day,” he said, “to see how it is.”

Making the isolation worse, Orocovis is one of many communities in Puerto Rico still waiting for power and water to be restored. At the community’s small sports stadium, people have been lining up to fill jugs, barrels and cisterns with clean water pumped from tank trucks. Residents says it’s a familiar routine. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, some were without water service for six months.

trucks and a car
The Department of Family of Puerto Rico and the National Guard distribute food at an intersection of the community of Orocovis. (Gabriella N. Báez for NPR)

Puerto Rico’s National Guard has been to isolated communities, distributing food and other supplies to residents having trouble getting into town. Corporal Alexis Cruz said, “We’re just trying to spread a little bit of happiness among all this mess.”

Puerto Rico’s water authority says service has been restored to more than two-thirds of its customers. The island’s power company says about 40% of its customers now have electricity. But in Orocovis, residents are skeptical about reassurances from the governor and other leaders that power and water service will be restored soon. As he waited for water at the sports stadium, Marcelino Cassiano repeated an oft-heard refrain, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

an ambulance
Four days after Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, it’s still slow going through many parts of the island. First responders drive carefully through state route 155 that runs from Coamo to Vega Baja through Orocovis and Morovis that is currently being cleared after landslides blocked access. (Gabriella N. Báez for NPR)
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