By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - A week after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, most of its 3.4 million residents are scrambling to find clean water, with experts concerned about a looming public health crisis posed by the island's damaged water system.
On Tuesday, hundreds of people crowded around a government water tanker in the northeastern municipality of Canovanas with containers of every size and shape after a wait that for many had lasted days.
"This is the first tank they have brought here," said Juan Cruz, a local carpenter, who was helping to fill the vessels while a solitary green-jacketed official stood by. "That is why the people are creating such a commotion, so they can survive."
The U.S. territory's water woes are tied to the collapse of its power grid; electricity is needed to pump, treat and filter water that shows up in household taps.
With the grid incapacitated, diesel-powered generators are needed to clean and move water where it needs to go. But the island does not have nearly enough generators to perform this work, utility officials say, while fuel to run them is scarce.
Only about 40 percent to 45 percent of the customers of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) had potable water as of Tuesday, company authorities said. Island-wide water service may not resume until electricity is restored across Puerto Rico, which could take months.
In the meantime, officials are racing to deliver bottled water and send tanker trunks across the island, where desperation is growing.
At the water line in Canovanas, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of the capital San Juan, people dunked bottles into larger containers still filling with water to make the most of their turn at the tanker. Others quenched their thirst straight away, draining their bottles, then refilling them. One woman carried four empty buckets that held about five gallons each.
A few residents said they been without running water since about last Wednesday, when Maria knocked out electricity, phones and commerce around the island. Fallen trees and power lines have blocked roads. Many shops and supermarkets have remained closed, leaving residents with few places to buy water.
Water service was spotty in San Juan, the island's biggest city, while in places such as Toa Baja, about 25 miles west, people brought buckets and plastic trash cans to fill up at a water distribution station.
Carlos Cotto, a government driver, 43, said he has been taking five-liter containers every day to work from his home in Caguas to replenish them in San Juan, about 20 miles north, to help relatives whose water is now running low.
"Just to keep the supply stable ... so we have enough to survive on," he said outside a large convention center that has been used to house people needing shelter from the storm.
CONTAMINATION SEEPS IN
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has provided more than 4 million meals and 6 million liters of water to Puerto Rico and the hurricane-hit U.S. Virgin Islands, with an additional 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water en route by barge to the islands.
"The vast majority of people on Puerto Rico do not have access to safe drinking water systems," said Sven Rodenbeck, chief science officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's hurricane response. He said the CDC is advising people in Puerto Rico to use bottled water as much as possible.
"Whenever a water system, whether it is Puerto Rico or anywhere, loses pressure there is concern that bacterial contamination can be drawn into the drinking water system. That is why when you lose pressure you issue ‘boil water’ notices," he said in a telephone interview.
Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico had a troubled water system.
Virtually the entire population of Puerto Rico drew tap water in 2015 that violated federal rules set under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a study released earlier this year.
"Puerto Rico stood out for having the worst record of any territory or state in the U.S. in terms of drinking water contamination problems," said Erik Olson, director of the Health Program at the Washington, D.C.-based NRDC.
The situation has only become worse with Maria, which has crippled sewage treatment plants and made the island's already leaky pipes even more prone to contamination. With nothing coming out of the taps, people have turned to wells and springs, which presents another public health risk, Olson said.
"That is shallow ground water that is incredibly susceptible to contamination from sewage and other sources," he said.
CLOSE TO DEFAULT
The water utility PRASA has also faced severe financial and regulatory problems.
Last year, it entered into an agreement to plead guilty to an indictment charging 15 felony counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act through the illegal discharge of pollutants from nine sanitary wastewater treatment plants and five drinking water treatment plants, U.S. authorities said in December.
PRASA last March said it had suspended ongoing projects and is considering other alternatives to pay off its contractors.
A few days after the storm, ratings agency Fitch said storm-related expenditures could compromise PRASA's already-strained liquidity, driving it closer to default
"With the systems that you have in Puerto Rico, you can make a lot of people sick very quickly," the NRDC's Olson said.
But with no water in the taps and bottled water hard to come by, many Puerto Ricans don't have the luxury of worrying about germs or illness.
In a neighborhood near San Juan, rainwater that Angel Negroni and his wife collect in buckets for use in their garden has become the couple's main source of water for drinking and cooking.
Negroni, 72, said he figures they will not have water service or electricity restored for weeks. Until then, he said he plans to cook with a small gas burner set up under a covered porch.
“I can make coffee,” Negroni said. “But pretty soon, I’ll need more bottled water.”
(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Herbert Villarraga in Canovanas, Puerto Rico and Stephanie Kelly in New York)