Puerto Rico’s Martin Peña canal is a winding, heavily polluted waterway that snakes 3.7 miles through the center of San Juan. Eight small, deeply impoverished communities, all lacking an efficient sewage system, surround the channel, and have for generations dumped untreated waste directly into the mud-colored water. One Friday in late April, it rained torrentially all night, turning the narrow streets into waist-high, foul-smelling rivers, washing away furniture, appliances, clothing and cars. Some degree of flooding happens about 20 times a year, and signs are posted along the canal advising, in Spanish, that “contact with the water may cause illness.” In the past, the health risks have included gastrointestinal ailments, as well as mosquito-borne viruses, like dengue fever. This spring, another mosquito-related illness, the Zika virus, was added to the list.
On the Sunday after this deluge, I visit the tiny community of Buena Vista Hato Rey, which is drying out after a day of 90-degree heat. Navigating around gigantic mud puddles, I find my way to the small, one-story home of Dolores Perez, who is standing in her courtyard surrounded by her soggy possessions: rugs, jeans, sweatshirts, a hair dryer. She’s lived in the house for 43 years, she tells me, and had lain awake all of Friday night waiting for the flood, which she and her family eventually managed to push back with brooms, mops and dustpans. This time, they’d been able to save their furniture, she said; in the future, who could tell?
The Perez family, thanks to their damaged pipes, hadn’t had running water in about a year. “We called the water company 11 times – finally they tell us, ‘Get a plumber,'” Perez’s brother says, wryly. Yet there is plenty of standing water – in the streets, the gutters, the abandoned houses and empty lots – none of which the city of San Juan is able to do much about. If the water isn’t removed, it is a near certainty that swarms of mosquitoes will be born in those pools, and at least some of them will carry Zika, which could, if public-health estimates are right, infect up to 875,000 of the island’s 3.5 million people by the end of the year.
The specter of this plague, whose true impact may take months to emerge, looms over Puerto Rico, the largely impoverished island territory, roughly the size of Connecticut, that has become the Zika epicenter for the United States. Of the 1,301 mosquito-borne cases recorded in the U.S., 97 percent of them are in Puerto Rico, neither a state nor a sovereign nation, but whose people are, nonetheless, U.S. citizens. As of early June, the start of Puerto Rico’s long, hot and rainy summer, there are 1,259 recorded cases on the island, though some health officials believe the true number may be more than 80,000.