The health crisis caused by Hurricane Maria is mounting by the hour. Massive flooding will cause the number of water related illnesses to spike quickly and there are patients with chronic diseases which have been exacerbated by the situation and their diseases are now becoming acute. People are standing in line for gas for eight hours a day to fill their containers with $10 of gas and they’re getting exhausted, overheated and it’s causing complications for people with diabetes and high blood pressure.
People are drinking and washing clothing in contaminated water and we’ve seen a lot of skin rashes and significant outbreaks of conjunctivitis. The hygiene situation across the board is causing a lot of concerns about outbreaks of infectious and waterborne disease. Moreover, there are dead animals lying around in residential areas, exacerbating poor hygiene conditions. People here are waiting to hear if there are any vaccination campaigns planned.
The biggest logistical issue right now is the shortage of gas. Until it becomes widely available, none of these problems will be solved. The lack of gas for vehicles to transport water and medicines and the basic things that people need in hard hit communities is making matters worse. The scarcity of gas also means we can’t even assess the real humanitarian scope of the disaster because it’s not yet possible to reach all communities. Many people are still cut off and may need help. There’s a strong likelihood that anyone with a serious illness, for example, someone on dialysis, will likely not make it beyond a few days and this is mostly related to the gas situation.
What makes matters worse is that we’re coming into flu season in Puerto Rico and with the close proximity of people in shelters and the absence of vaccinations there is going to be a significant flu season.
The geographical challenge
I have responded to disasters from Nepal to Haiti. The fact that Puerto Rico is an island makes this situation a little bit unique. Trying to get access to resources from outside has been extremely challenging. I think the gas situation is also somewhat unique in this context. I have never seen it on this scale before. People just can’t run generators and the intense heat is really becoming a problem.
The trajectory of the hurricane, which roared diagonally across the island, is also a factor that is worsening the crisis on an island that was not prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. There is literally not a corner of the island that was untouched. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, you can very clearly see the impact.
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