Democracy Dies in Darkness


‘Water is everything.’ But for many in Puerto Rico, it is still scarce.

September 12, 2018 at 1:03 PM

Down a steep, winding road on this remote mountainside, roosters crowed as four generations of the Fernandez family woke to yet another day with no water flowing through their faucets.

Angel, 11, put on his green and yellow school uniform and brushed his teeth over his kitchen sink, pouring out water from a gallon jug. He packed a lunch box with a frozen water bottle because the drinking fountain at his school “tastes like dirt.”

Farther down the hill, his great-grandfather, Carlos Fernandez, 90, flushed his face with water from a plastic bottle, just outside the one-room wooden house where he and his wife have been living since Hurricane Maria destroyed their spacious, two-bedroom home. His 85-year-old wife, Petra Gonzalez, tried opening the faucet in the sink that hangs out of the window of the tiny house. Nothing came out.

On this Monday morning late last month, the family’s matriarch resorted, yet again, to using a metal can to scoop water out of a pot to wash dishes, her wrinkled hands moving slowly.

“Ay, it gets tiring,” Gonzalez said.

The entire family is tired of living like this. They went months without electrical power or water, and even now, the tap water comes and goes for several days at a time.

This morning marked their fifth day in a row without running water, their fifth day in a row of filling up buckets from their only reserve — a blue tank at the top of the hill. Their fifth day in a row showering with pails of cold water in the single bathroom they all share.

“Without power, we could light a candle or a generator,” Gonzalez said. “But water? Water is everything.”

While running water has returned to the majority of Puerto Ricans, families like this one are still dealing with intermittent access to it, sometimes for a few hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end.

In the year since Maria, 50 percent of Puerto Ricans say people in their households could not get enough water to drink, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey. About 2 in 10 say they drank water from a natural source such as a stream or river after the hurricane hit in September 2017. Even by this summer, 53 percent say they are worried about the quality of water in their homes.

Puerto Rico’s aqueduct agency estimated that 99 percent of its clients had water service at the end of August and less than 1 percent experienced interruptions, according to Doriel Pagan, engineer and vice president of operations for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.

But that 1 percent comprised more than 8,000 families, and that number did not include the many rural, isolated communities that are not connected to the island’s central aqueduct system. Those families continue to be among the most vulnerable to water problems, said Brenda Guzman, a senior program adviser for Oxfam in Puerto Rico.

More than 230 of these rural neighborhoods across Puerto Rico subsist on their own wells or natural springs. Some of these communities suffered damage to wells, leaving families without water for several hours a day. Others rely on water from mountain springs that may not be properly tested for bacteria, Guzman said. Many of these places had shoddy water infrastructure and crumbling wells long before Maria struck.

The Fernandez family’s town, Villalba, was one of at least 27 municipalities across the island late last month that were still operating water pumps using an emergency generator provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, despite the fact that electricity has been restored to the vast majority of the island. In the case of Villalba, which is connected to the island’s central aqueduct system, a damaged electrical line was preventing the community from powering its water pump.

The unreliable access to something as essential as water adds yet another layer of misery to the lives of many Puerto Ricans, particularly the island’s poorest, who still haven’t recovered from last year’s catastrophe.

After months of living without power, after a year of sleeping under roofs made of blue tarp, some families still confront the daily question: Will we have water today? If not, where will we find it?

“For these communities, it’s an additional burden,” Guzman said, “to need to think not only about the reconstruction of your home, but about finding access to something so basic.”

TOP: Two great-grandsons of Carlos Fernandez and Petra Gonzalez, Jean Carlos Cruz Fernandez, left, and Angel Vasquez, leave for a family member’s home to wash their laundry because the water isn’t running in their house. LEFT: Granddaughter Marta Fernandez looks out the window of her home, the only one in the family compound that was not destroyed. Her 11-year-old, Angel, gets ready for school. RIGHT: As the sun sets, Angel uses his phone as a flashlight to go outside.

‘It broke my soul’

Carlos Fernandez and Petra Gonzalez lived in the same pink, wooden house for 63 years. Their son, one of their four living children, moved into a home right across from them, and later, their granddaughter and great-grandchildren moved into a house next door.

The extended Fernandez family lived quietly and modestly, tending to a farm and to the cows, horses and chickens that roam the mountainous pasture. The great-grandfather would sit on his balcony playing Christian hymns on his guitar.

“I had a good life before,” Carlos Fernandez said. “I wanted to spend the years I had left there.”

But Maria wiped out the wooden house and most of what was inside it, including Fernandez’s most prized possession. His son’s house also was ruined.

For days after the storm, Fernandez refused to leave his battered home. Even after it was torn down to begin rebuilding, the elderly man insisted on staying on his land.

“I don’t want to live in someone else’s house,” he said, a sentiment shared by many Puerto Ricans with a deep connection to their land. “I want to live in my house.”

His son built him a temporary, one-room home using the same pink wood that remained from the old house. Inside, there’s barely enough space for a bed, a couch and a tiny two-burner stovetop.

While FEMA gave the couple about $15,000 to rebuild, that would cover construction only of a wooden house. To build a cement home capable of enduring a future hurricane, the couple used all of the FEMA funds for construction, leaving them with very little money to buy furniture and appliances, Gonzalez said.

With the new house half-built, Gonzalez chooses to sleep at her nephew’s place down the hill, returning each morning to cook and spend time with her husband.

But he insists on staying day and night in the cramped, mosquito-ridden shack, holding on to the little he has left of the place he called home for six decades.

“It broke my soul,” Fernandez said of the destruction of his home. “I lost my world.”

‘Only a sip’

On days like this one, with no running water, everything is more difficult, more draining.

To use the bathroom, Fernandez and Gonzalez must trek up to their granddaughter’s house. To get food to cook, Gonzalez has to hike to a refrigerator up the hill. Her legs often get swollen from all the walking, back and forth. Her hip still hurts from when she took a bad fall while picking up debris after the storm.

Gonzalez fears that in the case of an emergency, an ambulance wouldn’t be able to reach the couple because of the crumbling road to their house.

Seven in 10 Puerto Ricans said the loss of electricity in their homes caused them to have problems storing or preparing fresh food.

Fernandez, who has a stent in his heart, feels weaker every day. He’s a lifelong smoker, and doctors have consistently told him to stop. But the habit has gotten worse since the storm — he now smokes two to three packs a day.

Around lunchtime, Gonzalez grabbed a package of chicken from the fridge before taking slow steps back down the hill to the tiny house.

“I can’t take too much with me, or else I’ll fall,” she said.

With a telenovela playing on their small television, she bent over to chop peppers on a slab of wood over a rusty frame of a table, the closest thing she has to a kitchen countertop. Stacked around her were cardboard boxes filled with food and pots and pans, the closest thing she has to cabinets.

She noticed that the water reserves in the house were running low, and she asked Fernandez to fetch some more from the tank.

Thin and frail, the man plodded up the hill and opened the spout, but only filled the five-gallon bucket with about one gallon of water — any more than that would be too heavy to carry back.

“Ay papá,” he said to himself, lifting up the container. “Only a sip.”

TOP: Gonzalez feeds the family’s chickens daily, this time from a pan of leftover food. LEFT: Angel Vasquez, 11, fills up a bucket of water from a blue tank in the yard. He used the water to flush the toilet. RIGHT: Marta Fernandez sits on her sofa with Angel, at their feet a generator and cords donated by a relief organization.

‘I searched and searched’

As Hurricane Maria swept through their mountains, Fernandez and Gonzalez waited out the storm at their nephew’s concrete house. Hearing the winds roaring around him, Fernandez remembered something he had forgotten to bring with him — a pouch, on top of his dresser, with his social security card, birth certificate and Medicare information, as well as $4,500 in cash.

Most important, the pouch carried a silver ring, engraved with the name of his son — Tony.

Tony was Fernandez and Gonzalez’s second child; their first died during birth. Before Tony’s fifth birthday, doctors found a brain tumor.

On the day Tony died, Fernandez slipped the ring off the young boy’s finger and placed it into his pouch. He kept it there for more than five decades, a reminder of the son he loved and lost.

“That was sacred for me,” Fernandez said. “I always had it in there.”

After Hurricane Maria retreated and Fernandez returned to his ravaged home, the first thing he looked for was the ring.

“I searched and searched,” he said. For days on end, he scoured the mountainside but couldn’t find it. He is convinced the wind swept it away, and he thinks it might still be out there, hidden somewhere in the brush.

It mattered more than the home, than the documents, than the money.

“What I needed was the ring,” he said.

‘Llegó el agua’

After finishing lunch, Gonzalez tried turning on the kitchen faucet to wash the dishes piled up in the sink.

“Llegó el agua!” she proclaimed. The water, at last, had arrived.

On that Monday afternoon, a team of contractors for FEMA and electricians for Puerto Rico’s aqueduct agency had come to town and discovered that the circuit breaker for the neighborhood water pump was off. They fixed it.

Gonzalez washed the dishes at ease. Fernandez hooked up a hose to the water spout outside, hauling the other end to the pasture to give the horses water. Arriving home from school, their great-grandson Jean Carlos, 17, called his mother to give her the good news. That night, his grandmother, Fernandez and Gonzalez’s daughter-in-law, took a warm shower — no buckets needed.

The water flowed with vigorous, rejuvenating pressure. For now.

Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.

Samantha Schmidt is a reporter covering gender and family issues.

Sarah L. Voisin has been a photographer at The Washington Post since 1998. She is co-founder of Women Photojournalists of Washington and has won numerous awards, many have been for her coverage of immigration, Mexico, Central America and Cuba.

Karly Domb Sadof is an award-winning photo editor at The Washington Post, currently working on the national news desk. She is also a contributing writer for In Sight, The Post’s photography blog. She joined The Post in 2016.

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