January 11, 2019

Water engineers help in Puerto Rican recovery effort


Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico in September 2017, becoming the third-costliest Atlantic hurricane and leaving $91.6 billion in damages. The U.S. government allocated funds to help in the relief effort but there was a shortage of local professionals able to assess and address the damage to Puerto Rico’s water systems. Therefore, through a grant from USDA Rural Development, National Rural Water Association (NRWA) began sending Disaster Recovery Teams to assist with the effort in January 2018.

Many water systems on the island need repair more than a year after the hurricane. Louis Funk and John Ruckman, professional engineers and water project managers from Bartlett & West, traveled to Puerto Rico in November 2018 to help.

“Rural water is full of volunteers that serve on Board of Directors and in other capacities, so, by their nature, we get to work with some very kind people in this industry, regardless of whether it is a few miles from our homes or hundreds of miles away,” Funk said.

He and Ruckman were part of a NRWA team that visited 80 rural water systems to identify needed improvements after Hurricane Maria. NRWA also hired locals to act as guides. These teams analyzed the conditions of the systems, water supplies, storage facilities and piping, while identifying and documenting damage done by the hurricane.

Funk said most of the water systems he inspected chlorinated their water, maintained reliable facilities and provided good quality water. However, he did see structural foundations swept away and piping damaged from the hurricane. Another challenge he saw was a shortage of people to run and maintain the water systems. Many were being operated and maintained by only one person. This is a problem that is independent of the hurricane and speaks to an inherent challenge for community water systems that is run by volunteers.

“Just like many water systems that we encounter in the Midwest, these systems in Puerto Rico are run by people who care, but they need more people to care and invest in their water supply,” Funk said.

“From what I saw, while there is still some damage not yet repaired, it was great to see Puerto Rico recovering well,” he said. “Aside from some cultural influences, the real difference between there and what I see every day in the Midwest was the mountainous topography and the beautiful island scenery. Otherwise it felt like many of the small, Midwest systems I’ve worked on that rely so heavily on just one or two people.” 

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