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Growing up in the small rural town of Orocovis in the Central Mountain Range of Puerto Rico, my Mom did not have access running water or electricity. The village, nestled in the lush mountain side in the middle of the island, relied on the fresh mountain river that ran through the valley for water – for drinking, cooking and bathing.
My earliest memories of visiting my family in Puerto Rico are filled with the beauty of a landscape so different than anything I was used to back home in Massachusetts. Everything was so green and the air was humid and smelled like sweet raw sugar cane. I remember climbing down the steep mountain with my sister and cousins on a trail of red clay to get to the river down below, dressed in the silly dresses my mother made us wear (we were, after all, city kids!). Once there, we would swim and play all day, stopping occasionally to help my Mom, Abuelita and Tia scrub clothes against the rocks to get them clean. Over the years, the village eventually got electricity, phone lines and running water.
Flash forward to 2017 and nearly a month post-Hurricane Maria and my family’s village is once again without electricity, phones or running water. This time, however, the water running through the mountainside may not be safe to drink. Hurricane Maria was such a powerful storm that hazardous debris and the rotting carcasses of wildlife victims have ended up in the water supply, greatly increasing the chances of outbreaks of disease from contaminated water.
According to Puerto Rican officials, 64% of the commonwealth's homes and businesses had potable water as of Saturday, however, it could be several more weeks to restore power and running water to the more rural parts of the island, like Orocovis.
The municipal water department has installed faucets along main roads in many towns for residents to fill containers, but many families living in the mountains are unable to access potable water because the roads are still impassable due to mudslides and downed trees.
Now news comes from Dorado, a resort-town on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, that desperate residents are resorting to tapping into contaminated wells that have been deemed Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA officials have recently tested samples from at least six wells inside the Dorado Superfund site to determine the contamination levels. Many of these residents are aware that the water there is contaminated but faced with the choice of water or no water, they are forced to make the choice to drink from an unsafe source.