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Clogged Irrigation Channels and Mangrove Deforestation Aggravated Extreme Flooding in Puerto Rico

More than 400 people from the Playa, Playita and Las Mareas communities in Salinas had to be removed when their homes were flooded.

September 20, 2022

Clogged irrigation channels and the increase in mangrove deforestation in recent years were factors that worsened the effects of the up to 25 inches of rain that Hurricane Fiona dropped on Salinas this Sunday and caused the evacuation of more than 426 people, several residents and community leaders in the area told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).

Residents of the Playa, Playita and Las Mareas communities in Salinas on the southern coast,  had to be rescued by personnel from the Puerto Rico National Guard and the Salinas Office of Emergency Management late Sunday night due to extreme and rapid flooding in the area. They were sheltered at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School.

Several residents told the CPI that, in previous days, they alerted the local municipality government about the need to clean the streams and the irrigation channels that years ago supplied water to the sugar cane plantations. They confirmed that no one had cleaned the ditches in a while.

Wanda Pica, a resident of the López neighborhood in Salinas, said she called the Salinas Citizen Service Office on Thursday requesting the cleaning of the channels in the imminent threat of the atmospheric event.

“I told them that we had problems with the ditches, that they were full of garbage. Many people started to cut down trees and dumped them in those ditches. The municipality told me that although they were not collecting vegetative material, they would send a truck and take it away. As I confirmed with several community leaders that never happened. That’s what caused the flooding in the area because they said they would come to help, and nobody came. They finally came around 8 a.m. Saturday but they only unclogged part of the channel,” she said.

Pica said that as of Monday afternoon no one from the municipality had gone to see how the area was.

The Salinas resident said her community had never been so flooded. Furthermore, she said it was the first time the flood waters had reached her home.

The drainage canals in San Juan, managed by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, were also affected.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“The truth is that there isn’t a body of water that affects me directly. But I couldn’t sleep and I got up and saw water started coming in from the bathtub and the toilet. The water got into my mom’s house, too. My home did not get so much water, but some of my neighbors were very flooded and they lost everything. The worst thing is that we still have the risk of flooding again,” she warned.

Víctor Alvarado, spokesperson for the Comité Diálogo Ambiental and a resident of Salinas, agreed that cleanup requests were made to the municipality on repeated occasions.

“In the San Felipe and Mosquito neighborhoods, which are high-risk areas, the neighbors told us that they had been alerting the municipality for months about the cleaning needed to be done and that, at the last minute, the day before, they removed some, but it was too late,” he said.

Alvarado said there is another irrigation channel that was also flooded in Paseo Costa del Sur, near the El Coquí neighborhood, in the northern part of the town.

“We have spent years raising red flags about the constructions allowed. They are floodable areas. Of course, the channels create a dilemma for us because when they overflow, they feed the aquifers, which is good. But since neighborhoods were built in areas where they shouldn’t have been, that causes the houses to flood when the channels fill,” said the organization’s spokesman.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) Irrigation Division oversees the irrigation channels in Salinas. The CPI sought a reaction from the public corporation, and although press officer José Blanco said he would call back, he did not respond as of press time.

This media outlet also requested a reaction from the mayor, Karilyn Bonilla, but she did not respond to calls and messages.

The pump falls short

Meanwhile, Ángel Colón, sergeant of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish) Ranger Corps in Salinas, told the CPI that reducing the flooding through the agency’s water pumps has taken longer than estimated because the waves push the water inland.

“I’m working a pump to lower the waters. The pumps turn on automatically, but if they’re left on for a long time they can burn out. Right now they are   pushing water toward the sea as it collides with the swells. The situation is very tough in the Playita, Playa and Las 80 communities,” he acknowledged.

According to a report from the National Weather Service on Monday afternoon, Salinas had accumulated between 18 and 25 inches of rain due to Hurricane Fiona since Saturday, September 17.

Most vulnerable sectors hit hard

Nelson Santos preferred to stay at his home in Las Mareas. He saw that many of his neighbors did leave in one of the 14 trucks that the National Guard activated to evacuate residents in Salinas.

The water did not reach his house, but it did hit several neighbors hard.

“A woman came to the front of my house and told me that she had recently rented a house. She was crying because they lost everything. She was with her husband, a girl, and a dog. All this suffering is due to the desire for speculation and contractors who don’t take human beings into consideration to make profits instead,” Santos said, referring to the number of buildings in flood-prone zones.

According to the community leader, the municipality of Salinas is besieged by the interest in developing infrastructure in Las Mareas to cater to the rich, focused on tourism, and not on meeting the needs of vulnerable communities in the area.

Hundreds of people in the municipality had to be rescued after water entered their homes.
Photo by Ricardo Arduengo | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“On top of all this is the devastation and destruction of mangroves and agricultural land. You need to look at the communities of Las Mareas, Playa and Playita… they have been destroying the mangroves and building on the coast. They’re people from outside the community who have bought from former residents and come here to build marinas. This destruction in these communities is due to the annihilation of the mangroves. The sea came in and met the Nigua River and the neighbors’ houses were flooded,” he explained.

Johny Rivera is a fisherman and a resident of Marlín Street in La Playa Sector. He is one of the few fishermen in the area whose income depends entirely on fishing. He lamented that he is already beginning to feel the effects of Hurricane Fiona on his work. He said that his two boats sank and although he has a small water pump to get them out, the rain has not allowed him to do so.

“The floods have been the product of so much fill (in place of mangroves) used to build housing complexes. Here in the Playa neighborhood, they filled in the mangrove and the water came toward where we were. My granddaughter told me that their house, to the north of the Playita neighborhood, was flooded. The water came into the house even though it is made of cement, but she told me that all the houses around her are flooded. It’s impossible to be there,” he said.

He was sad over the possibility of losing all the fishing gear he had left out to sea to trap lobsters.

“All the fishing gear I left out in the sea must have been lost. This is a disaster. I guarantee you there’s bound to be a mess in [Jobos] Bay. They left all the boats in the marina, tethered to small anchors.”

He agreed that in the days before the hurricane, he did not see anyone from the Municipality, Emergency Management, or the DRNA Rangers Corps.

Construction without regulation or the environmental context could worsen the situation.
Photo by Ricardo Arduengo | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Were the floods avoidable?

Environmental law expert and attorney Ruth Santiago, part of President Joe Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, stressed that unregulated construction in Salinas has made historic communities much more vulnerable.

“They’re building a project that is behind the southern part of the La Margarita complex, which is known as Coco Playa. For this project, a bridge was built over the Nigua River, and that bridge blocked and diverted water to the La Margarita community and to the community to the south of us, Villa Esperanza,” she said.

Santiago believes that promoting construction in Salinas without considering the environmental context could aggravate the problem in the area, which continues to worsen because of climate change.

“The worst problem is the scattered construction in areas that are recharging the aquifers. On the one hand, these constructions prevent water from percolating, and, on the other hand, they create a greater demand from aquifers for these projects. That includes building shopping malls closer to town. By increasing the fill level, of course the Playa and Playita sectors will flood terribly,” she said.

Santiago also warned about the carelessness in defiling the irrigation channels that still carry water when it rains excessively.

“The Patillas channel, which runs from Patillas, through Arroyo and Guayama and into the Nigua river, and the Guamaní channel, are still in use in some areas that are narrower than others. Those channels and the streams have not had maintenance,” she noted.

The environmental attorney told the CPI that she got a letter from Jalonne White-Newsome, director of the Environmental Justice Advisory Council, who sought to learn more details of the situation in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Fiona.

“I told her that many communities in Salinas and the south had been flooded, in terms of electric power, that we have no service island-wide. That I had electricity because of the solar panels. Others have generators and that most people have nothing and that there may be deaths due to lack of electricity,” Santiago said.

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