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Guajataca Dam's Failure Highlights Puerto Rico's Infrastructure Issues


When Hurricane Maria ripped across Puerto Rico 19 days ago, it tore a hole in the emergency spillway of one of the island's largest dams. It has yet to be fixed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it hopes to contain the damage soon before it poses a bigger problem to neighboring communities. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.


CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On top of the Guajataca Dam in Puerto Rico's northwest corner, a huge marine CH-53 helicopter hovers over the reservoir's roadway. It locks onto a chain attached to a 5-ton concrete barrier like one of those you see on the side of the highway and lifts that giant block straight into the air. Within minutes, it's hovering over the dam's collapsed spillway teetering over the massive breach. The pilot then releases the barrier.

DENNIS ZEVENY: Basically they're flying five, six hours a day.


KAHN: The huge, whirling rotors are so loud you can't hear the barrier hit the ground even though I'm standing not that far away with Dennis Zeveny of the Army Corps of Engineers. Each round trip takes about five minutes from pickup to drop-off, so we have to talk fast.

ZEVENY: On a good day, we're getting probably about 110 to 120 in the hole.

KAHN: Here he comes again. We're going to have to pause.


KAHN: Zeveny says the plan is to fill up the hole and water from coming over the spillway so it won't collapse any more. Heavy rains since Hurricane Maria aren't helping. The reservoir is still almost full with nearly 11 billion gallons of water, putting a lot of pressure on the earthen dam itself, says Zeveny.

OK, he just dropped the concrete barrier, and we can start up again. This looks bad.

ZEVENY: It's very similar to what happened at Oroville Dam in California, just smaller scale. And they saved that, so I'm confident we can save it as well.

KAHN: They weren't on an island.

ZEVENY: That is true.

KAHN: He says shoring up the dam is the Corps' main priority. It did receive some upgrades in the 1980s, but like most of Puerto Rico's ailing infrastructure, the dam reportedly hasn't been regularly inspected. A breach would not only flood out communities below but threaten the water supply to 350,000 Puerto Ricans. And clean water is in short supply around the island. Some 40 percent still don't have any.

Downstream from the dam, the water is just flowing at a fast, fast pace through the agricultural irrigation outlet. It's just coming through here really hard and fast. And all residents down here have been under mandatory evacuation. But some just won't leave.

JOSE MUNOZ SOLER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Fifty-six-year-old Jose Munoz Soler says he's lived in what he calls the stretch of paradise his entire life.

You are under mandatory evacuation orders, but you're not leaving. (Speaking Spanish).

SOLER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'm not leaving," he says. Munoz did evacuate immediately after the hurricane with his family, but he says he's been in a shelter for more than two weeks. The place is crowded. Food is running out, and it's hot in there. He says he can't take it anymore and has come back home.

SOLER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "One's house is your home. It's not easy to walk away from it," he says. His neighbor Ziegfrido Seigert agrees. He says he's sure the dam won't break. After all, it's held up all these years.

ZIEGFRIDO SEIGERT: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We're in trouble," he says, "if it keeps raining and they can't safely release the water."

SEIGERT: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: And he adds, "please, please don't bring us any more hurricanes." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guajataca, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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