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Science & Environment

Puerto Rico Without Power As Authorities Try To Warn Thousands Of Damaged, Failing Dam

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to head now to Puerto Rico. The island still doesn't have power after Hurricane Maria made landfall earlier this week. There are fears of structural damage to a major dam and a lack of food and water. To hear more about what's going on, we called New York Times writer Luis Ferre-Sadurni. He's in San Juan now. Luis, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LUIS FERRE-SADURNI: Thanks for talking about this. It's an important issue.

MARTIN: So can you just give us a sense of the conditions there on the island?

FERRE-SADURNI: Well, the island is 100 percent without power, mostly without telecommunications and mostly without water. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. Whole neighborhoods have been flooded. And entire portions of the island still haven't been heard of.

The governor has had a lot of trouble contacting mayors in different towns. And without communication, we, you know, the government doesn't know the extent of the damages yet. But slowly, images have trickled in of aerial shots. And the island is getting a picture of what the damage has been, and it's turning out to be a very grim picture.

MARTIN: You know, people - to just be sure that people do understand that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, is there any federal presence there? Is FEMA there? Is there any federal presence visible there?

FERRE-SADURNI: Yes, definitely. FEMA has been playing a very important and big role in terms of organizing rescue missions and organizing all the logistics to try to, you know, start getting access to different parts of the island which we haven't heard of. You know, the government still hasn't been able to assess the magnitude of the damages.

And right now, there's kind of some breaking news in this town in the northwestern portion of the island which suffered some significant damage because of Irma, and it's on the verge of collapsing. And if it collapses, it could flood two municipalities where 70,000 people live.

MARTIN: So tell us, what is happening with the Guajataca Dam? I mean, are people being evacuated from that area?

FERRE-SADURNI: The dam suffered what the governor has called a rupture. And he has organized the police department in the island and the National Guard to evacuate everyone in those towns. However, what he said today was that he was there and that he didn't feel a sense of urgency on the ground about evacuating. And a lot of that is because there is no two-way communications. A lot of people don't even know that they have to evacuate. But then there's a question of, where do you put 70,000 people in an island that's already sheltering 15,000 people?

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about the conditions that people are facing in their homes. I mean, what about people who aren't in shelters, what are their conditions?

FERRE-SADURNI: People whose houses weathered the storm are basically - the majority of them are basically without electricity and without water. Now, it's been three days, so three days of coping without electricity and water is doable. But the question is here, how long are people going to be able to go out, you know, go living on their lives without electricity or water?

The government has not provided any estimates about how long it will take to repair the electric grid here. And a lot of the repairs are going to depend on what the damage was. The critical central transmission lines of the system are down. We could be looking at four to six months of reconstruction of the power grid.

MARTIN: That was Luis Ferre-Sadurni. He's a writer for The New York Times. We reached him in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Luis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FERRE-SADURNI: Of course. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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