Published: Sept. 30, 2022 By

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still without electricity nearly two weeks after Hurricane Fiona hit the island on Sept. 18, initially knocking out power for almost all 3.3 million U.S. citizens. The island's aging power infrastructure had not fully recovered since Hurricane Maria five years ago, leaving residents with high electricity bills and rolling blackouts even before last week’s storm. 

And when the power goes out, so does access to clean water. 

Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, professor of environmental engineering and associate dean for faculty at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, specializes in environmental chemistry and water treatment. He has analyzed the impact of natural disasters on water quality and treatment, including the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico’s water supply. 

CU Boulder Today spoke with Rosario-Ortiz, a native of Puerto Rico, about what threats the island faces in providing safe drinking water to its residents after Hurricane Fiona.

Fernando Rosario-Ortiz

Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, professor of environmental engineering and associate dean for faculty at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences

What is happening right now in Puerto Rico? 

When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, there was a significant amount of rain that fell, with a lot of impacts to the power infrastructure that also impacted water supply production. Right now, the island is working toward recovery, and there has partial restoration to power and water supply. However, there are still challenges with the water system, which include the lack of power to run the pumps and the fact that there is debris stuck in the water intake structures that pull water into the treatment plants.

How much has Hurricane Maria impacted what’s happening now?  

Hurricane Maria had catastrophic impacts on the infrastructure in Puerto Rico in 2017. The power grid essentially collapsed and there were impacts to the water infrastructure. Since Maria, extensive work has been done to repair Puerto Rico’s power grid.

The reality is, though, the work to improve the grid over the last five years wasn't complete before Hurricane Fiona hit. Even before Fiona, a lot of people in Puerto Rico were struggling with outages—and the hurricane just exacerbated those effects. The system in Puerto Rico is quite fragile. We’re hopefully days away from recovery after Fiona, but it could be longer than that. 

What else does a hurricane like Fiona do to affect water access? 

Growing up in Puerto Rico, it was always kind of comical that when it rains a lot, your water will turn off. With major rain comes a lot of sediment and turbidity in the water, and most of the systems on the island cannot deal with that. They have to shut down and wait for the high turbidity events and high sediment events to pass. 

Hurricane Fiona overflowed the rivers in Puerto Rico, and it will take some time for the flows to go back to normal. In addition, there's a lot of debris in what is called the intake structures, where the water comes into the treatment plant. That debris needs to be manually removed and all the pumps and parts need to be tested to ensure they are operational. However, that work can’t be done until the conditions are safe and the river levels aren’t too high.

What are the next steps right now for residents?

In the aftermath of an event like this, the first priority is to make sure people are safe and taken care of and get access to power and water. For those people who have lost homes, there will be a long, long road toward recovery. In the southern portion of Puerto Rico, Salinas, for example, there will be a major cleanup effort because these communities were underwater for a long time. That's on top of restoring the power supply and water access to Salinas. 

How can the rest of us help our fellow citizens? 

Puerto Ricans are indeed U.S. citizens, and we should rally to help—just like we do when natural hazards occur in California or Florida. We also know it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when this type of event will happen again. And it is not out of the question that it could occur again in the near future. We should be thinking about looking into the future and making investments that will result in long term resilience for the residents in Puerto Rico.