Hurricane María's death toll is rising, despite the fact that the storm tore through Puerto Rico five weeks ago. Why? Because Puerto Ricans still don't have access to reliable clean water, and 20 out of 51 sewage treatment plants are still out of service.
"Raw sewage continues to be released into waterways and is expected to continue until repairs can be made and power is restored. Water contaminated with livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants can lead to illness when used for drinking, bathing, and other hygiene activities," the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said a statement.
And while the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised Puerto Ricans (over 3 million Americans) not to use water from rivers, streams and coastal water to drink, bathe, wash, or to cook with unless boiled, many aren't actually able to do so due to the Island's lack of available fuel. "If boiling the water is not possible, water may be disinfected with bleach," the EPA added, highlighting the extent of the crisis.
The lack of water on the island is so dire that residents were seen carrying bottles and barrels through holes in chain-link fences to access water from wells that are thought to be contaminated with toxic waste.
The result: two deaths from leptospirosis, a deadly animal-borne disease that can also live in water. And with 74 more suspected cases, health care workers on the ground are becoming increasingly concerned that the Island's death-toll will continue to rise.
The lack of water on the island is so dire that residents were seen carrying bottles and barrels through holes in chain-link fences to access water from wells that are thought to be contaminated with toxic waste from a nearby Superfund site. Superfund sites are heavily polluted areas that have been designated for federal cleanup.
The island is home to a staggering 18 sites, including the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which has been, since the storm, used as a source of public drinking water. While officials detected carcinogens tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene at the site in the 1980s, it was added to EPA's Federal Superfund List in 2016, as one of the most contaminated sites in the United States. Both of these solvents, which have been identified in groundwater are linked to a catalogue of health problems, including neurological issues, and in January, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry linked them to an increased risk of cancers and, in the case of trichloroethylene, cardiac defects.
In Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, water contamination has also become a major concern, but for a different reason. Used as a Navy bombing range for 60 years, it is littered with unexploded weapons (such as bombs, shells, grenades, landmines), which, some suspect washed into the sea and water resources as the Hurricane María hit.
The solution: Operation Agua
"The question our President should be asking himself is: 'What can I do? What can we do?" Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) told VICE Impact.
But in the absence of such questions, and following a visit to Puerto Rico two weeks ago where Weingarten witnessed the devastation and the tremendous need for water firsthand, the President of AFT, launched Operation Agua.
"Despite what's going on in Washington, despite its environment that seems to enable hate and bullying, people all around America, and all around the world, want to help."
In partnership with Operation Blessing International, AFSCME and the Hispanic Federation, Operation Agua will provide safe drinking water to families across Puerto Rico. Its initial goal is to purchase and distribute 100,000 individual water filtration systems for households and classrooms, and 50 large-capacity clean-water devices to a network of nonprofit organizations, union offices, schools and other community-based groups, "which have served as social safety nets for Puerto Ricans", to provide stable and reliable sources of safe water.
The coalition, explained Weingarten which is working closely with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, is bringing together relationships with manufacturers, experience providing clean water across the globe, partnerships with shipping and transport workers and corporations, and access to a regional and school-based infrastructure across the island to deliver clean water to people.
"Since launching three days ago, we've already raised $200,000 dollars," Weingarten said. "Despite what's going on in Washington, despite its environment that seems to enable hate and bullying, people all around America, and all around the world, want to help. And Operation Agua gives people that opportunity to help. People can see that their $30 donation helps fund one in-home purifier. It's very concrete."
The purifiers, a number of which are already on their way to Puerto Rico, provide up to 24 liters of safe water per day, don't require any electricity and have an estimated filter life of up to 5,000 liters.
"We need a lot more funding though," he said. "approximately $3 million to help provide safe water to all Puerto Ricans."
$30 provides an in-home purifier that filters and provides up to 24 liters of safe water per day to a family in need. You can donate $30 and help a Puerto Rican family .
As Congress decides what to do next when it comes to recovery for the Island, stand up with Puerto Ricans and let your elected officials know that the current humanitarian crisis should be dealt expediently and with the resources afforded to all other U.S. citizens.