Amid Puerto Rico's Water Crisis, Unions Step In Where Trump Is Failing

Americans in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, wait for FEMA to arrive with water. Their neighborhood has been without power or clean water for more than a month. (Photo: Mario Tama via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON ― Nearly 1 million Americans in Puerto Rico still have no drinking water, more than a month after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island. Some have resorted to drinking from wells at hazardous Superfund sites. Others have been drinking water from creeks that sick animals have urinated in ― and have died as a result.

President Donald Trump has given no indication that he is concerned. “I give ourselves a 10” out of 10, he said last week, when asked how he’d rate his response to the humanitarian crisis on the U.S. island. That’s led a group of unions and nonprofits to take matters into their own hands with Operation Agua, a new program to fund and deliver water filtration devices directly to people’s houses, schools and relief centers around the island.

“We’re talking about getting 100,000 of these water purifiers into the homes of Puerto Ricans so they can filter their water so it’s safe for drinking, bathing and cooking,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told HuffPost on Monday.

AFT and other groups leading the effort, including Operation Blessing and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have begun raising money to provide at least 100,000 individual water filtration systems and 50 large-capacity clean water devices for schools and community centers. They’ve already figured out how to deal with the fact that 80 percent of the island has no power: the Kohler Clarity filter, which uses gravity, not electricity, to remove more than 99 percent of bacteria in water.

Weingarten said one of these filters can purify up to 10.5 gallons of water per day, which is the amount of drinking water needed by a typical family.

“Hopefully, the concerts and other groups that have gotten big donations will contribute to this effort,” she said. “But now, with a $30 contribution, someone can get a family one of these water purifiers.”

Yanira Rios collects spring water nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed her town of Utuado. It's not clear if the water she's collecting is safe to drink. (Photo: Mario Tama via Getty Images)

FEMA and military personnel have been on the island for weeks, and they have helped to get bottled water to some communities. But Trump has come under fire for his sluggish response to the disaster, and there have been numerous reports of distribution problems. Some volunteer nurses on the ground told HuffPost earlier this month that government officials have been hoarding bottled water at a central location and requiring people to come pick it up, versus sending workers into communities to deliver it. That has prevented some older and less mobile residents from getting any food or water, they said.

“These people are going to have an epidemic. These people are going to die,” said Alicia Schwartz, one of those nurses. “The help is not really there for them.”

Weingarten, who has helped with past disaster relief responses for 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, was in Puerto Rico earlier this month. She said she drove around the island for 10 hours at a time, between towns hit hard by the hurricane, and was shocked by the “grossly inadequate” government presence.

“I did not see a FEMA truck. I saw one military truck. I saw four electrical crews. That’s it,” Weingarten said. “For the president to say they have gotten everything they needed and it’s the municipalities that are failing is completely wrong. What is unusual is the dearth of a federal response and the enormous vacuum that not-for-profits have to fill. That’s just wrong.”

Want to chip in some money to help a fellow American have drinking water? You can donate to Operation Agua here.

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Maria Lopez cries while walking from her house that was flooded after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, on September 22, 2017. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods Friday after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria the most devastating storm in a century after it destroyed the US territory's electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Loiza, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 22: Aerial photo of the floadings in the costal town of Loiza, in the north shore of Puerto RicoHurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
HAYALES DE COAMO, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 24: Karlian Mercado, 7, rests on the rubble that remains of her family's home after it was blown away by Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area on September 24, 2017 in Hayales de Coamo, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Irma Torres poses for a picture at her damaged house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man looks at damages on his flooded house, close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man sits in a wheelchair next to washing machines at a shelter after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
LOIZA, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 22: A resident wades through flood water days after Hurricane Maria made landfall, on September 22, 2017 in Loiza, Puerto Rico. Many on the island have lost power, running water, and cell phone service after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
People stay at the roof of a damaged house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 23: A devastated house in Morovis Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 22: Residents line up for gasoline days after Hurricane Maria made landfall, on September 22, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Many on the island have lost power, running water, and cell phone service after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
A car submerged in flood waters is seen close to the dam of the Guajataca lake after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guajataca, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A resident lay on a cot inside a shelter after being evacuated from a home near the damaged Guajataca Dam after Hurricane Maria in Isabella, Puerto Rico, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Amid their struggles to recover from�Hurricane�Maria, some Puerto Rico residents found it befuddling that President Donald Trump fired off a number of Twitter rants about professional athletes on Saturday -- yet made no mention of their dire situation. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
People stop on a highway near a mobile phone antenna tower to check for mobile phone signal, after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in Dorado, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A dead horse is seen next to a road after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An aerial view shows the flooded neighbourhood of Juana Matos in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Catano, Puerto Rico, on September 22, 2017. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods Friday after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria the most devastating storm in a century after it destroyed the US territory's electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

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