Half of Hurricane-Ravaged Puerto Rico Faces Lack of Drinking Water

 In U.S.
Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents still lack potable water one week after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island, officials reiterated Wednesday — as locals literally scrambled to stay alive.

About 44 percent of the Puerto Rican population remains without drinking water, the Department of Defense said in a statement Wednesday.

“Given the changing scope and conditions, DoD will adjust its concept of operations in Puerto Rico and transition from a short term, sea-based response to a predominantly land-based effort designed to provide robust, longer term support to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and [to Puerto Rico],” the statement, from Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, read.

Meanwhile, many locals said they were struggling to find safe drinking water and increasingly worried about a looming public health crisis in the U.S. territory.

“This paradise has turned into hell lately in the last couple of days,” said Gregorio Cortés, a doctor from Carolina, Puerto Rico, by phone on Wednesday.

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“Pharmacies and supermarkets are starting to close because they don’t have enough diesel supply to keep running so people are having less and less opportunity to find drinking water and food or supplies, he said.

Cortés said many on the lived in worry about where they would find their next supply of water for themselves and their families. “That’s everyday life for us now,” he said.

People sometimes travel long distances after hearing a particular store still had drinking water and food left, only to leave empty handed, he added.

In the northern municipality of Bayamón, mother Betsy Chilea described looking for water for her children.

“It’s very hard because we don’t have anything,” she told NBC News.

When asked if she had seen federal aid in the area, she said, “No! Not anything. Don’t see anything.”

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Cortés, who is father to a 7-year-old and 3-year-old, said that even for families who have had their running water restored, there is major risk that it is not clean enough to drink because of contamination.

“We’re boiling the water and after we boil it we are filtering it and especially since I have small kids we worry about them and their safety,” he said.

There are more than 8,800 federal staff, including 600 FEMA workers, on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands aiding recovery efforts after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, FEMA said Wednesday.

Image: People queue to fill containers with water from a tank truck at an area hit by Hurricane Maria in Canovanas

People queue to fill containers with water from a tank truck at an area hit by Hurricane Maria in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, Sept. 26.