Lack of power in Puerto Rico creates life or death situations for those with medical needs

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JAYUYA, Puerto Rico – When Hurricane Fiona completely knocked out power and water to the mountain town of Jayuya in the heart of Puerto Rico, it quickly became a matter of life and death for Luis De Jesús Ramos , who has throat cancer and a tracheostomy.

De Jesús Ramos is one of many Puerto Ricans for whom electricity is essential to survival, and each day without it brings a growing sense of urgency.

He relies on life-saving electricity for everything: using a blender to prepare his liquid meals, a refrigerator to store his food, an adjustable bed that keeps him in the positions he needs to be in to sleep safely, and medical supplies. required. to maintain and treat his tracheostomy.

Although he can no longer speak, De Jesús Ramos, 63, a bald man with white patches in his beard, walked around his house on Thursday in a white t-shirt and striped flannel pajamas pointing to each necessary piece of the puzzle. to meet their health needs.

Luis De Jesús Ramos, 63, and his daughter Ashly Pérez, 26, at their home in Jayuya, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva/NBC News

“He really needs those things. It’s an emergency,” her daughter Ashly Perez, 26, said in Spanish, speaking from the ground floor of her family’s home on a winding road in Jayuya, an area where landslides cut off roads. roads and left bright brown mud, downed trees and split branches. .

Most of Puerto Rico’s nearly 1.5 million electricity consumers are still without power after an island-wide blackout was reported on Sunday about an hour before the eye even of Hurricane Fiona enters the island.

As of Friday afternoon, 601,500 customers had their power restored, which represents about 41% of all customers, according to Luma Energy, the company in charge of electricity transmission and distribution in Puerto Rico. Most customers who have been reconnected to the grid are in the northeast, where the storm caused less damage.

As Puerto Ricans enter their fifth day without power, concerns over fuel accessibility on an island forced to rely on backup generators to power homes and even critical infrastructure such as hospitals and towers telecommunications began to increase.

Image: Members of the LUMA society work to restore energy on September 20, 2022 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Members of the Luma Company are working Tuesday to restore power to San Juan.Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

Long queues are beginning to form at gas stations. Businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, are also beginning to close temporarily due to lack of electricity or fuel to run their generators.

Government officials on the island insist there is no shortage of fuel, stressing that there is enough supply for 60 days. Distribution issues are behind recent fuel accessibility disruptions, “which are being resolved,” Puerto Rico Secretary of State Omar Marrero told a press conference Thursday. evening.

Almost 73 per cent, or 968,793 customers, had their water service restored by Friday morning, according to the Water and Sewer Authority. Nearly 440,000 of these customers are served by temporary generators powering certain water bombs. Around 360,000 customers (27%) still have no water.

Doriel Pagán-Crespo, executive president of the water authority, said the agency is continuing work begun on Thursday to bring water back to areas in the municipalities of Jayuya, Lares, Aguada, Moca, Rincón and Aguadilla, after the displacement of the debris from the irrigation canals the water of the Río Guajataca was evacuated.

“Without electricity there is no health”

After learning about De Jesús Ramos’ condition, Ivonne Rodríguez-Wiewall, executive advisor to Direct Relief Puerto Rico, and a team arrived at his home in Jayuya Thursday afternoon with a generator. Direct Relief is a non-governmental organization that donates medical supplies and other relief to communities.

De Jesús Ramos made the sign of the cross and looked up, thanking God as they installed the generator in his home.

“It’s very important to understand that health is very much related to having a source of energy,” Rodríguez-Wiewall said. “Without electricity, there is no health.”

Rodríguez-Wiewall and his team distributed hygiene kits, solar lamps and batteries to nearby residents. The whole area seemed to be without water or electricity except for the houses where the hum of generators could be heard.

Five years ago, nearly 3,000 people died in the months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, a number far higher than the government’s first official death toll of 64. Hurricane Maria triggered one of the longest blackouts in history and left many Puerto Ricans without access. to potentially vital needs.

Rodríguez-Wiewall said the lack of electricity potentially means no access to digital patient records, no ability to keep medications such as insulin or certain vaccines at the correct temperature, and an inability to power medical equipment. necessary.

The needs in Puerto Rico are great, she said, pointing out that the island has been in a state of emergency for five years: first Hurricane Maria in 2017, then a wave of earthquakes in the southern region of Puerto Rico. island in early 2020, the pandemic, and now Hurricane Fiona.

Volunteers were dropping off food and supplies in the community of Tiburones in the southern town of Ponce on Thursday amid a sweltering heat wave that deepened the struggles of those without electricity or water. The area had been flooded during the storm as two nearby rivers overflowed. The residual smell of water and salt lingered on the ground, and residents described seeing live fish in the waters pouring into their neighborhood.

Carmen Rodríguez, 50, a community leader born and raised in Tiburones, described her fear during the storm upon seeing Fiona rain.

“It was so strong. When I saw the river was rising so fast, I knew it was going to penetrate all the houses,” she said in Spanish. “It was worse than Maria , really.”

Rodríguez said the area still has no electricity, and although it now has some running water, the pressure is still far from enough to help residents clean their homes or respond to their other needs.

The Direct Relief Puerto Rico team came to the neighborhood to deliver 10 portable oxygen concentrators and other supplies to partners in the area.

One of the oxygen concentrators was for Edwin Quiles Martínez, 66, a US Navy veteran with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes. He’s been struggling to breathe for 10 years now, and the extreme heat and lack of energy following Fiona makes it worse.

Image: Edwin Quiles Martínez, 66, and his wife Graciela Pérez Alvarado, 73, at their home in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Edwin Quiles Martínez, 66, and his wife Graciela Pérez Alvarado, 73, at their home in Ponce, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva/NBC News

“This machine is going to help me a lot,” he said between heavy breaths, sitting outside his house shirtless and in denim shorts, occasionally wiping his forehead.

Family members helped him and his wife, Graciela Pérez Alvarado, 73, pull out a series of black garbage bags filled with debris from where floodwaters entered their home, leaving a smell of mold and damp.

Pérez Alvarado sighed as he looked around his house and all the work that needed to be done. For her, this storm was as bad as Maria’s impact.

A lifelong resident of Tiburones, she became emotional and said in Spanish, “I don’t even want to live here anymore.

Daniella Silva reported from Puerto Rico and Nicole Acevedo from New York.

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