Puerto Rico Update: How One NGO Is Helping The Island Rebuild After Hurricane Maria

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Puerto Rico faces a daunting struggle to recover after being devastated by Hurricane Maria this week. The power grid all across Puerto Rico has been knocked out, leaving its almost 3.5 million residents without power, potentially for months. And now in northwest Puerto Rico, 70,000 people were hurried to evacuate because a dam there is at risk of failing. The U.S. National Weather Service calls it a, quote, "really, really dire situation." We're joined now by Michael Fernandez. He's executive director of us CARAS, a nonprofit that's been helping in recovery and is based in Puerto Rico.

Mr. Fernandez, thanks for being with us. What are your immediate needs right now?

MICHAEL FERNANDEZ: We have all sorts of immediate needs. Just now I was still walking through waist-high water that, by now, is completely black and full of contamination and bacteria, to get medicine in to some of the people who are inside of the communities. So you know, we have to - we're still getting organized to really assess the situation. And we believe the government is doing a good job in partnership with the National Guard and the Army. And we know the Marines and the Coast Guard and, you know, everybody is coming in between yesterday and today. So hopefully, this will help to open the streets. But we still had no information of the west and the center of the island until yesterday afternoon because it was the first time that helicopters could actually fly over to see what was going on because we had no communication.

SIMON: How do people live without power?

FERNANDEZ: You know, it's something that we have gotten used to. Obviously, we have had hurricanes before. You just - I think that our whole nation, we just need to reset our timeframe completely and just understand that this is a completely new life that we have to start living. And we know it's going to take no less than four to six months before more than 70 percent of the population gets electricity. Right now, we're more worried about water because we have no water...

SIMON: Yeah.

FERNANDEZ: ...And it's because there is no electricity. But I was informed by the National Guard that we we're getting a ship coming in from the Navy with generators and diesel to be able to turn on the water pumps. We also need pumps to extract water. There's water everywhere, you know. And now I'm starting to see it, for the first time, the water to go down. But in rural areas, in an urban areas, flatlands, highlands - there is flooding everywhere. And gradually now, the water is starting to recede. So if the - I think not having water is more challenging than not having electricity.

SIMON: Mr. Fernandez, do you know anything about this vulnerable dam in the northwest of Puerto Rico?

FERNANDEZ: Well, the big problem that we're having has been a lake called Guajataca. It's a reservoir, and they can't open the compartments so that the water can go out because there's too much pressure. It's a very old dam, and so it's just not working. And there is so much water - they're very worried that the dam will give way. So they have evacuated two main towns and all the communities or neighborhoods that live around the lake.

Where I work, in the neighboring town, they had to open the gates to the dam because of overflooding. And we had a situation similar to what happened in Texas with Harvey. So many towns and communities were flooded. Several hours after the hurricane, I left just because there was so much water that had come in from the mountain and in from the ocean. And so you know, many people lost their lives in that process because we didn't even have the generators to sound off the alarms. It's just very overwhelming to try to grasp, you know, everything that's going on.

SIMON: Michael Fernandez is executive director of CARAS in the Americas. Thanks so much.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.