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The lack of energy in Puerto Rico generates life or death situations for those with medical needs

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JAYUYA, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Fiona left the mountain town of Jayuya in the heart of Puerto Rico completely without power and water, it quickly became a matter of life and death for Luis De Jesús Ramos, who has throat cancer and a tracheotomy

De Jesús Ramos is one of many Puerto Ricans for whom electricity is essential to survival, and each day without it brings a growing sense of urgency.

He depends on life-saving electricity for everything: from using a blender to prepare his liquid meals, a refrigerator to store his food, an adjustable bed that keeps him in the positions he needs to be in to sleep safely, and the necessary medical supplies. maintain and care for his tracheostomy.

Though he can no longer speak, De Jesús Ramos, 63, a man soon with white patches on his beard, gestured around his home Thursday in a white T-shirt and striped flannel pajamas as he pointed to each needed puzzle piece. to maintain his health needs.

Luis De Jesús Ramos, 63, and his daughter Ashly Pérez, 26, at their home in Jayuya, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva/NBC News

“He really needs these things. It’s an emergency,” her daughter Ashly Pérez, 26, said in Spanish, speaking from the ground floor of her family’s home on a winding road in Jayuya, a region where landslides cut roads and left bright brown mud, trees fallen and broken branches. .

Most of the nearly 1.5 million power customers in Puerto Rico are still without power after an island-wide blackout was reported Sunday, about an hour before the eye of Hurricane Fiona entered the island.

As of Friday afternoon, 601,500 customers had their electricity restored, representing about 41% of all customers, according to Luma Energy, the company in charge of power transmission and distribution in Puerto Rico. Most of the customers who have been reconnected to the grid are in the Northeast, where the storm caused less damage.

As Puerto Ricans enter their fifth day without power, concerns about access to fuel on one island forced them to rely on backup generators to power homes, and even critical infrastructure such as hospitals and telecom towers began to fail. increase.

Members of the Luma company work restoring power on Tuesday in San Juan.Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

Long queues begin to form at gas stations. Businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, are also beginning to temporarily close due to a lack of power or fuel to run their generators.

Island government officials insist there is no shortage of fuel, saying there is enough supply for 60 days. Distribution challenges are to blame for the recent interruptions in fuel access, “which are being addressed,” Puerto Rico Secretary of State Omar Marrero said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Nearly 73%, or 968,793 customers, have had their water service restored as of Friday morning, according to the Water and Sewer Authority. About 440,000 of these clients get their service thanks to temporary generators that activate certain water pumps. Some 360,000 clients (27%) are still without water.

Doriel Pagán Crespo, executive president of the water authority, said that the agency continues with the work started on Thursday to bring water to sectors of the municipalities of Jayuya, Lares, Aguada, Moca, Rincón and Aguadilla, after debris was moved of the irrigation canals. the waters of the Guajataca River were cleaned.

‘No electricity, no health’

After learning of De Jesús Ramos’ condition, Ivonne Rodríguez-Wiewall, executive advisor for Direct Relief Puerto Rico, and a team arrived at his home in Jayuya Thursday afternoon with a generator. Direct Relief is a non-governmental organization that donates medical supplies and other aid to communities.

De Jesús Ramos made the sign of the cross and looked up, thanking God as the generator was installed in his house.

“It is very important to understand that health is closely linked to having a source of power,” Rodríguez-Wiewall said. “Without electricity, there is no health.”

Rodríguez-Wiewall and her team handed out hygiene kits and solar lights and batteries to nearby residents. The entire area seemed to be without water or electricity, except for the houses where the loud hum of generators could be heard.

Five years ago, nearly 3,000 people died in the months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, a number far higher than the government’s first official death toll of 64. Hurricane Maria caused one of the longest blackouts in history. and left many Puerto Ricans without access. to needs that can save lives.

Rodriguez-Wiewall said not having electricity potentially means not having access to digital patient records, not being able to keep medications like insulin or certain vaccines at the correct temperature, and not being able to power necessary medical equipment.

The needs in Puerto Rico have been great, he said, noting that the island has been in a state of emergency for five years: first Hurricane Maria in 2017, then a wave of earthquakes in the southern region of the island in early 2020, the pandemic , and now Hurricane Fiona.

On Thursday, volunteers were delivering food and supplies in the community of Tiburones, in the southern city of Ponce, amid a sweltering heat wave that has compounded the struggles of those without electricity and water. The area had been flooded during the storm when two nearby rivers burst their banks. The leftover smell of water and salt lingered on the ground, and residents described seeing live fish in the waters flowing into their neighborhood.

Carmen Rodríguez, 50, a community leader born and raised in Tiburones, described her fear during the storm seeing Fiona’s rain.

“It was so strong. When I saw that the river was rising so fast, I knew that it was going to reach all the houses,” she said in Spanish. “It was worse than Maria, really.”

Rodriguez said the area still doesn’t have power, and while it does have some running water now, the pressure still isn’t enough to help residents clean their homes or meet their other needs.

The Direct Relief Puerto Rico team arrived in the neighborhood to bring 10 portable oxygen concentrators and other supplies to partners in the area.

One of the oxygen concentrators was for Edwin Quiles Martinez, 66, a US Navy veteran with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes. He has had trouble breathing for 10 years, and the extreme heat and lack of energy that follow Fiona makes it worse.

Edwin Quiles Martínez, 66, and his wife Graciela Pérez Alvarado, 73, at their home in Ponce, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva/NBC News

“This machine will help me a lot,” he said between heavy breaths, sitting outside his house shirtless and in jean shorts, wiping his forehead from time to time.

Family members have been helping him and his wife, Graciela Pérez Alvarado, 73, remove a series of debris-filled black garbage bags from where flood waters entered their home, leaving a smell of mold and moisture.

Pérez Alvarado sighed as he looked around his house and all the work that needed to be done. For her, this storm was also worse than the impact of Maria.

A lifelong resident of Tiburones, he became emotional and said in Spanish, “I don’t even want to live here anymore.”

Daniella Silva reported from Puerto Rico and Nicole Acevedo from New York.

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