Puerto Rico, home to 3.5 million people, almost half of whom live at or below poverty, suffered a crushing blow from Hurricane Maria. The storm, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm, is the strongest to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 100 years, knocked out all power on the island and sent a “wall of water” crashing through coastal areas and rivers which snake through the hilly interior.
As of 5 p.m. Eastern time, river gauges near the town of Comerio, located in the middle of the island towards the eastern side, were registering flood waters over 78 feet, compared to the previous record at that location of 29 feet and official flood declaration happening at 11 feet. Similar effects could be seen throughout much of the rest of the island as well. Rio Grande near the city of Arecibo topped its flood record by more than 3 feet. Rio Grande de Manati near the town of Ciales, towards the western side, hit 42.9 feet of water as compared to the previous record of 25 feet and a flood level of 10 feet.
Damage reports are still coming in. With power out across Puerto Rico, it may be challenging to determine the full impact of Hurricane Maria for days. Direct Relief maintains partnerships with health facilities throughout the island and is actively trying to determine the status of their facilities, staff and patients.
Estimates from the Puerto Rican power authority are now indicating that restoration of electricity to many residents could take as many as four months. With the territory $70 billion in debt and public services including health care already suffering from budget cutting austerity measures, the impact of extended power outages on the population could easily rival or exceed the effects of the storm waters.
Hospitals and health clinics with back-up power generators are able to weather limited outages, but the plans for extended time in the dark are uncertain at best. That could severely impact health services ranging from oxygen concentration to dialysis to basic lighting and service delivery. With 73 of Puerto Rico’s 79 municipalities already classified by the federal government as “medically underserved areas” the broad based recovery of the island’s health system promises to be an enormous undertaking.