November 15, 2017


 Devastation in Puerto Rico

Extent of harm unknown amid outages, road closures after Hurricane Maria

Posted Oct. 2, 2017

Hurricane Maria caused the most extensive devastation in Dr. José Arce's lifetime on Puerto Rico.

A man and a dog on a porch surrounded by water
A man and a dog in Loiza, Puerto Rico (Courtesy of Yuisa Rios/FEMA)

"I mean, I've been through storms before—since I was a child—but this is definitely the worst by far," Dr. Arce said.

Dr. Arce is a member of the boards of directors for Puerto Rico's veterinary medical association and the AVMA. He described the hurricane's effects during a 30-minute drive Sept. 28 from his clinic in San Juan to buy pet food from a manufacturer's warehouse on the city's outskirts. Distribution had halted.

He described passing a kilometer-long line of cars leading to a gas station. Waiting in line for diesel fuel then took nine hours, with exceptions for first responders and physicians, he said. Puerto Rico's veterinary medical association was trying to get the same access for veterinarians who were aiding displaced animals.

By the morning of Oct. 2, he said the lines at San Juan's groceries and gas stations were gone, but grocery stores still had limited supplies. Other municipalities, especially those in the mountains, remained difficult to reach.

Lack of electricity in Puerto Rico was the largest problem, followed by limited water supplies, Dr. Arce said.

About 12 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers had electricity by Oct. 9, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 60 percent of Puerto Rico's population had potable water, up from less than half at the end of September. About 400 miles of Puerto Rico's 5,100 miles of road were open.

Dr. Arce knew of four veterinary clinics that were destroyed by flooding or wind, and he was certain more were damaged. Veterinarians with usable clinics were taking in displaced animals, but he had no indication how many animals were displaced.

He had little information from beyond the San Juan metropolitan area, he said, citing the lack of electricity and patchy cellular service.

Dr. Arce
Dr. José Arce (Courtesy of Dr. José Arce)

"I know of some clinics that have a considerable number of displaced animals, but many others, I know they don't have any power," he said. "So, it's kind of hard to board any animals when it's so hot inside."

Hurricane Maria had sustained wind speeds of 155 mph at landfall Sept. 20 in Puerto Rico. The National Hurricane Center reported catastrophic flash flooding.

On Sept. 21, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for central Puerto Rico and told people to move to higher ground.

In an announcement, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the hurricane was the worst to hit Puerto Rico since 1928.

About 11,000 people and 600 animals were in government-established shelters during landfall.

A report from the National Weather Service office in San Juan indicates the wind stripped entire trees of leaves and snapped the limbs of those that remained standing. People felt the ground shake as the storm crossed the island.

The wind damaged countless buildings, and the rain caused large-scale mudslides, the report states. Citing U.S. Geological Survey data, service officials indicated 53 of 65 river gauges met flood stages.

San Juan's mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, said in a CNN interview Sept. 29 that people were dying, and devastation was worsening. In a separate on-camera interview for the Washington Post, she said the island lacked electricity, looting was increasing, people lacked food, water, and medication, and floodwater remaining in much of San Juan was contaminated with fuel and sewage.

"I know we're not going to get to everybody in time," she told the Post.

Dr. Walter Colon, president of Puerto Rico's VMA, the Colegio de Medicos Veterinarios de Puerto Rico, said Puerto Rico had shortages of medical supplies for humans and animals even in the areas reachable by roads. Distribution had been delayed for products arriving at ports and airports.

Animal owners also lacked hay for their horses and grain for their cattle, he said.

"There is no information as to when it will be delivered," he said.

Dr. Arce expected a jet would arrive in early October with horse feed and medicine. The AVMA, American Association of Equine Practitioners, Farm Aid, and National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs were working to provide those supplies as well as baled hay expected to arrive by boat.

"We've been working on it for three or four days, but the logistics are hard," he said.

Dr. Colon also said some mountain communities had been beyond communication for almost two weeks.

While Dr. Colon has heard reports of animal deaths and damage in Puerto Rico's livestock industries, he noted that those reports were secondhand. He was trying to learn more, despite communication problems ongoing in early October.

Dr. Colon also has been unable to reach the CMVPR immediate past president, Dr. Eldin Reyes, since the hurricane. He usually talks with him at least once daily.

A 24-hour restaurant that shares a wall with Dr. Arce's clinic provided outlets so he could refrigerate perishable drugs and vaccines. But the hot afternoons forced Dr. Arce to close at noon each day.

Water was available at his clinic but intermittent at his third-floor apartment.

"At least we're able to get water from downstairs, from the garage area," he said.

Most of the people bringing pets to Dr. Arce's clinic wanted health certificates and updated vaccines for travel off the island. Clients told him they planned to stay with relatives or friends, rent a house in Miami, or stay at a resort in the Dominican Republic.

But Dr. Arce also treated at least one dog that had a broken leg and a 5- or 6-month-old puppy with leptospirosis, a particular concern during floods.

"There's a lot of water outside that is not moving anywhere, and, if the Lepto organism gets into there, that could affect a lot of people and also pets," he said.

Other pets had diarrhea, vomiting, and appetite loss, which Dr. Arce attributed to stress.

"It's surreal," he said. "It's like a war zone. But it gets better every day."

Dr. Arce said neighbors and strangers were helping one another by removing damaged light posts and downed trees and providing meals for those in need. Recovery would take months.

"We'll overcome this," he said.

Dr. Arce also expressed gratitude to the veterinarians who have called and expressed concerns. And he asked that people keep Puerto Ricans in their prayers.

"We appreciate your concerns and any help you can send us," he said.

Puerto Ricans have helped other states following disasters, and Dr. Colon expects residents elsewhere will help Puerto Ricans now.

"This is an experience one never wants to go through, and it makes you realize how helping each other in different situations is important," Dr. Colon said.

The CMVPR is raising money for veterinarians who suffered losses or have been housing displaced animals. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation is collecting donations for reimbursement grants to veterinarians who are providing services and shelter during disasters.