Most Puerto Ricans have water now, but they’re afraid of drinking it

Running water post-Maria.
Running water post-Maria.
Image: Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
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It’s been seven weeks since hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and life in the island is still filled with uncertainty: How many people died? When will power come back? How big will the storm’s impact be on the economy?

In this series, Quartz is examining questions Puerto Ricans are navigating. Here’s the third installment, on the return of water service.

Utuado, Puerto Rico

The share of Puerto Ricans with running potable water surpassed 85% on Nov. 8 for the first time since hurricane Maria hit the island seven weeks previously. But in some areas, most people still don’t have running water, and for those who do it’s not clear whether it’s safe to drink.

One such place is the mountain municipality of Utuado—ironically, the site of two major reservoirs. Only around one third of its roughly 30,000 inhabitants have running water, and many are still drinking only bottled water, or using filters or chlorine tablets to disinfect the water from the faucets. ”I don’t recommend drinking tap water at all,” says  Daniel González, a local resident. Running water returned to his home a week ago, but it’s still coming out brown, he says.

In the days after Maria, health experts warned about waterborne diseases and the island’s own health officials instructed Puerto Ricans (link in Spanish) to drink bottled water or to boil it. During a trip to the island at the end of October, locals repeatedly told me to use bottled water even for tooth-brushing.

Puerto Rico’s water utility, the AAA, says tap water is safe to drink around 72 hours after service is restored, once whatever debris accumulated in the dry pipes is washed away. The brown tint, said a spokesperson, Karim del Valle, is due to minerals that aren’t dangerous. “We test the water daily and we at the [AAA] ourselves use it,” she said. All but 18 of AAA’s 114 water filtration plants are running, according to del Valle.

Utuado’s plant, though, is not one of them. It was toppled by the storm, which also dislodged the equipment that pulled water out of one of the lakes, said Angel Medina, an official at the municipality’s emergency response office. It could take weeks or months to bring them back online, he added.

Here’s a look at how some people in Utuado and elsewhere on the island are getting their water post-Maria.

puerto ricans collect water from the mountain after hurricane maria
This Utuado resident rigs a makeshift system to collect mountain water with a funnel made out of a plastic bottle and a PVC pipe.
Image: Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
puerto ricans collect mountain runoff after maria
Here’s the system in action.
Image: Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
puerto ricans collect mountain runoff after Maria
Plastic containers come in handy for water collection—though empty water bottles have also become common litter across the island.
Image: Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz


water bottles in post maria puerto rico
Many Puerto Ricans are still drinking out of water bottles. To get his bulky load to his house, this Utuado man has to go through a backyard, down a steep slope, across a river, and a up a hill on the other side.
Image: Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
water and solar filter deliveries in puerto rico
Some Puerto Ricans are moving to solar water filters, though water bottles remain in high demand. Here, Carlos Delgado, a former Puerto Rican baseball player, delivers both to residents in Adjuntas, which neighbors Utuado.
Image: Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
ltered water water in puerto rico after Maria
Larger-capacity filters are also being distributed. This one was donated by Oxfam and local non-profit Foundation for Puerto Rico to a senior resident home in the southern municipality of Guayama.
Image: Quartz/Ana Campoy
filtered and unfiltered water after Maria in Puerto Rico
Tap water before (left) and after being filtered (right.)
Image: Quartz/Ana Campoy