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Helping Puerto Rican families meet a basic need after the storm: clean water

By Coco McCabe

Oxfam and two local partners are distributing long-lasting water filters in communities where Hurricane Maria damaged water supplies.

To Puerto Rico’s Carmen Iris Camacho Colón, Hurricane Maria brought the sorrow of sudden widowhood. To Ada H. Santiago, the storm delivered utter destruction. And to Ada E. Hernandez, the disaster dragged in a lingering depression.

Now, weeks later, the hardships for many people on the island continue as basic needs—like access to clean water—remain a daily challenge to meet. That’s why one of the initial emergency responses Oxfam has undertaken with the help of two local partners, The Foundation for Puerto Rico and the University of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Health, has been the distribution of household water filters.

Called Big Burkeys, and as shiny as mirrors, these stainless steel devices promise to ease the anxiety families may have about the water flowing from their taps or other makeshift sources—water that potentially could be contaminated because of sewage runoff. In the weeks after the storm, the Environmental Protection Agency was advising people to boil their water before drinking it. Nearly two months in, an estimated 20 percent of Puerto Ricans didn’t have water.

With Oxfam’s support, The Foundation for Puerto Rico has purchased 1,300 of the filters and is buying  700 more. Oxfam has been distributing the filters—accompanied by instruction sheets in Spanish and hands-on assembly with the users—in rural areas where people lack access to government water systems and in urban areas where the water system is unsafe and could present health risks. The Big Burkeys can hold 2.25 gallons of water at a time and can clean 6,000 gallons before the pair of filters inside needs to be changed. That means for families processing 4.5 gallons of water a day, the filters could last more than three and a half years.

That long filter life may be a relief to people like Camacho Colón, who recently received one of the Big Burkeys: She had always relied on spring water—until the storm hit and her husband fell sick and died after repairing pipes from the spring. His death certificate mentions Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease, spread by animal urine, that can spike following excessive rainfall or flooding. Infection can occur through contaminated water or wet soil.

Carmen Iris Camacho Colon's husband died a few weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. His death certificate cited Leptospirosis. Since then, Camacho Colon's granddaughter has been constantly at her side. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

 ‘Don’t let them touch anything’

Tears filled her eyes as Carmen Iris Camacho Colón told the story of her husband’s death—a story she was determined to share so others could learn and protect themselves, avoiding the heartache she and her family have endured.

When Hurricane Maria landed, the force of the storm damaged the outside pipes that brought water from a spring into the couple’s concrete home in Divisoria, a barrio in Villalba. Camacho Colón’s husband set about fixing them, and while doing so took a break to eat some oranges and bananas near the site.

Sometime after the repair was done—and water was again reaching the house—her husband began to complain of aches and pains. He had a fever and felt weak, she said, and when he asked if he could try some of the anti-inflammatory medicine that Camacho Colón takes, she obliged. But then, she noticed that her husband was beginning to speak incoherently and that he was behaving aggressively. When his mouth became pasty, she thought it was due to dehydration. But when his eyes became yellow—a sign of jaundice, one of the disease’s symptoms—the family decided to take him to the emergency room.

There, they got the bad news: He was in critical condition and on the verge of kidney failure, said Camacho Colón. She said she had heard about the bacteria and knew of its connection with rat urine, but she never suspected it in this case.

For more than two weeks her husband lingered in the intensive care unit with Camacho Colón at his side. Doctors tried everything from dialysis to a blood transfusion and intubation when he couldn’t breathe. But, in the aftermath of the storm, the hospital ran out of oxygen and so he was transferred to another hospital. Two days later he was returned to the first hospital, making the journey through the pouring rain. In the course of all of this, he also suffered two cardiac arrests. In the end, doctors declared Camacho Colón’s husband brain dead.

“It’s a month today,” she said softly, hugging the young granddaughter who was sitting on her lap and is with her constantly these days. “I never thought I would go through something like this.”

All her life, Camacho Colón has drunk the local spring water. Bottled water didn’t appeal to her—until the storm came and its consequences took her husband. After learning about Leptospirosis, she turned to bottled water for cooking and drinking.

“I became terrified,” she said. “I would tell my grandchildren’s parents: don’t let them touch anything.”

Now, with Oxfam’s water filter, capable of removing contaminants eight times smaller than the one that causes Leptospirosis, she will no longer need to rely on bottled water.

Ada Santiago lost most of her home when Hurricane Maria slammed into the hilly community of Cubones in Puerto Rico. She has been living at her mother's house since the storm. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

 ‘The floor went down the mountainside’

For Ada H. Santiago, who lost almost her entire home in the storm, the filter distribution in her community took place just as she was running low on the bottled water provided by the municipality and the military.

Perched on a steep hill in Cubones, Santiago’s wooden house didn’t stand a chance when Maria hit. Worried about what might happen as the winds picked up, Sanitago and her husband took shelter in her mother’s house across the street—a fortuitous decision.

“The floor went down the mountainside,” said Santiago, recalling the tumult that swept away her home and its two bedrooms, the kitchen/dining room, and the living room. All that’s left is part of a bathroom wall with a toilet and a sink.

Santiago said she longs more than anything for running water so she can hose things down and clean up a bit.  To flush the toilet in her mother’s house, she keeps her car loaded with empty gallon jugs that she fills at a spring and lugs home.

With the filter handy, hunting down bottled water is one less thing she’ll have to worry about.

Ada Hernandez has been living with her boyfriend since the storm severely damaged her house. She planned to help her mother, disabled by a stroke, by bringing her a water filter. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

 ‘He’ll trust the water more’

Ada E. Hernandez has had her share of worry, too, since the hurricane blew the roof off her house in Jagüeyes. She managed to save some clothes, and to cover a bathroom and one other small room with some zinc planks, hoping to protect her refrigerator and a few other appliances.

But damage to her home isn’t all that’s weighing on her. In the days since the storm, a depression has gripped her, and she is worried about her mother who remains partially paralyzed from a stroke a few years ago and then came down with pneumonia after the hurricane.

After participating in an Oxfam distribution in La Cruz, Hernandez planned on giving one of the filters to her mother, who has been relying on bottled water. So has Hernandez’s father, who preferred bottled water even before the storm. If he can’t get it, then he boils whatever water is available and adds a little chlorine, she said.

“He can stop boiling the water when he uses this filter,” she said. “He’ll trust the water more.”

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