Wednesday, September 27, 2017

‘People Are Dying’:  Puerto Rico Faces Daunting Public Health Crisis

As the full scope of Hurricane Maria's devastation emerges, leaders are calling for urgent help.  Many of the risks were spelled out in a 2013 climate assessment.

A 2013 report by the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council spelled out many of the territory's climate vulnerabilities, including urban flood risks that can spread diseases. (Credit: Joe Raedel/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
A public health crisis is unfolding in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, as millions of people face a frightening array of urgent dangers, some of which may drag on for weeks or months.

Nearly one week after the storm hit, federal emergency response personnel struggled to make contact with remote communities and restore critical medical infrastructure.

As of Monday, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), already stretched thin by continuing recovery efforts from Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, had yet to reach six communities in Puerto Rico and was just sending its first shipment of water to the remote islands of Vieques and Culebra.

"We are in response mode, and our main priority is saving lives, getting generators to the hospitals, and making sure that there is enough fuel for those generators to run," FEMA spokesperson Jose Davila said.

"It is very bad down there right now," said Sven Rodenbeck, chief science officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2017 hurricane response.  "For the vast majority of the island, there is no power.  They have had flooding, and the health care system—many of the clinics and hospitals are closed.  A lot of the drinking water systems are not operational, along with the waste water systems."

Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, gave a blunt assessment of the situation.

"People are dying," Cruz told CBS news on Tuesday.  "This is the reality that we live in, the crude aftermath of a storm, a hurricane that has left us practically paralyzed."

Natural Hazards and a Vulnerable Population
The disaster facing the U.S. territory—and mirrored to an extent in the nearby Virgin Islands—is exacerbated by long standing environmental justice issues facing a poor, underrepresented minority population on an island where climate experts have long warned of the increasing risks of such a catastrophe.   

A 2013 report by the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council, a group of more than 50 researchers, planners, economists, architects, sociologists, health professionals, hydrologists, and climate scientists, spelled out the concerns.

"At this moment, we are very vulnerable to extreme events and our population at risk increases because we have created very fragile and unstable environmental conditions," the 2013 study concluded.  "For example, currently Puerto Rico has more flood-prone areas than ever before because we have altered natural drainage of storm water, particularly in our cities."

As of 2010, 342,000 people lived in floodways or coastal areas subject to storm surges, and 49 percent of the population lived in areas susceptible to landslides.

"The high proportion of population living in areas vulnerable to natural hazards, growing numbers of the elderly and other at-risk groups, and a relatively high poverty rate increase the island's social and economic vulnerability to climate change impacts," the study concluded.

Read more at ‘People Are Dying’:  Puerto Rico Faces Daunting Public Health Crisis

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