Half of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico faces lack of drinking water

Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents still lack potable water one week after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island, officials reiterated Wednesday — as locals literally scrambled to stay alive.

About 44 percent of the Puerto Rican population remains without drinking water, the Department of Defense said in a statement Wednesday.

“Given the changing scope and conditions, DoD will adjust its concept of operations in Puerto Rico and transition from a short term, sea-based response to a predominantly land-based effort designed to provide robust, longer term support to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and [to Puerto Rico]," the statement, from Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, read.

Meanwhile, many locals said they were struggling to find safe drinking water and increasingly worried about a looming public health crisis in the U.S. territory.

16 PHOTOS
Puerto Rico in darkness
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Puerto Rico in darkness
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 23: Jaime Degraff sits outside as he tries to stay cool as people wait for the damaged electrical grid to be fixed after Hurricane Maria passed through the area on September 23, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A police car patrols a dark street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods Friday after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria the most devastating storm in a century after it destroyed the US territory's electricity and telecommunications infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan Puerto Rico, late on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico has been battling dangerous floods after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, as rescuers raced against time to reach residents trapped in their homes and the death toll climbed to 33. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A police car patrols a road as Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo, on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: San Juan is seen during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 20, 2017 San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely impacted. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has announced a curfew, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., effective Wednesday through Saturday. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Satellite night images of #PuertoRico. #HurricaneMaria knocked out power grid, millions without electricity. More @… https://t.co/YACDm1nDtE
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 21: In Old San Juan, there is no electricity including the area of La Perla. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: A building is dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: The Miramar neighborhood is completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 20: Buildings in San Juan are completely dark during a total blackout after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017 in Puerto Rico. Thousands of people have sought refuge in shelters, and electricity and phone lines have been severely effected. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
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“This paradise has turned into hell lately in the last couple of days,” said Gregorio Cortés, a doctor from Carolina, Puerto Rico, by phone on Wednesday.

Related: Lawmakers Want General Commanding Hurricane Relief

“Pharmacies and supermarkets are starting to close because they don’t have enough diesel supply to keep running so people are having less and less opportunity to find drinking water and food or supplies, he said.

Cortés said many on the lived in worry about where they would find their next supply of water for themselves and their families.

“That’s everyday life for us now,” he said.

People sometimes travel long distances after hearing a particular store still had drinking water and food left, only to leave empty handed, he added.

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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot and her dog in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A car is viewed stuck in a flooded street in Santurce, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding on Thursday after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called 'the most devastating storm in a century,' had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Fishing boats with severe damage at Club Nautico in the San Juan Bay. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Men walk past damaged homes after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017. Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on, cutting power on most of the US territory as terrified residents hunkered down in the face of the island's worst storm in living memory. After leaving a deadly trail of destruction on a string of smaller Caribbean islands, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's southeast coast around daybreak, packing winds of around 150mph (240kph). / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: A local shop sustained damages after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man walks close to damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Agapito Lopez looks at the damage in his house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
TOPSHOT - A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed on September 23, 2017 to evacuate people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment after the window was blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment with the window blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area last week on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows damage caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase
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In the northern municipality of Bayamón, mother Betsy Chilea described looking for water for her children.

"It's very hard because we don't have anything," she told NBC News.

When asked if she had seen federal aid in the area, she said, "No! Not anything. Don't see anything."

Related: Mayor Issues ‘S.O.S.’ as Puerto Ricans Scramble to Help Most Vulnerable

Cortés, who is father to a 7-year-old and 3-year-old, said that even for families who have had their running water restored, there is major risk that it is not clean enough to drink because of contamination.

“We’re boiling the water and after we boil it we are filtering it and especially since I have small kids we worry about them and their safety,” he said.

There are more than 8,800 federal staff, including 600 FEMA workers, on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands aiding recovery efforts after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, FEMA said Wednesday.

The agency said it has provided more than 6.5 million liters of water, 4.4 million meals and 70,000 tarps, among other supplies, to the islands since Maria first made landfall.

President Trump has said he will visit the area next Tuesday.

Related: What Is the Jones Act, the Law Some Say Hurts Puerto Rico?

"I will be going down to Puerto Rico next week to get an on the ground briefing about the disaster recovery and to see all of our great first responders and to be meet a lot of the people who were so affected by these storms," he said from Indiana on Wednesday. "We are with you now, I tell them, and we will be there every step of the way until this job is done. It is truly catastrophic what happened in Puerto Rico."

But even with federal and local aid trickling, residents in San Juan and throughout Puerto Rico still lacked basic necessities and some said the public health risk was mounting.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Wednesday evening that the island was working to meet the needs of its people while facing a major disaster.

"You have to understand that this is a devastation of an enormous magnitude, that our grid, our energy grid is completely destroyed," he told MSNBC's Chris Matthews on "Hardball."

"We are on an island so getting resources over here has been a rate-litigating step so we're working on it we’re delivering food and water, we're making sure diesel gets to the people," he added.

Isabel Rullán, co-founder and managing director of ConPRmetidos, a non-profit group, said even if people have running water, they may not have the power or means to boil or purify it. The non-profit, which focuses on fostering personal, social, and economic development of Puerto Rican communities, is raising money for long-term relief efforts.

Photos: Powerless Puerto Rico Struggles to Recover Post Maria

“This is a big problem," she said by phone Wednesday. Rullán's office in San Juan had only recently gotten its running water back, but the situation was still critical in many areas, she said.

"We’re in San Juan which is one of the least affected areas and they were still very much affected," she said.

Rullán, who lives in the northern municipality of Guaynabo, said her own building lacked running water and power. She was given water by neighbors after the hurricane hit because there was none left in the nearest supermarket.

She added that the problem went beyond access to drinking water — it was becoming a real public health concern.

Compounding that issue was hospitals lacking diesel and being unable to take new patients, she said.

"There’s so much contamination right now, there’s so many areas that are flooded and have oil, garbage in the water, there’s debris everywhere,” she said by phone.

“We’re going to have a lot of people that are potentially and unfortunately going to get sick and may die,” she said.

Photos: Satellite Photos Show Puerto Rico Left in the Dark

The Department of Defense said Wednesday that 59 of the 69 hospitals were “operational with unknown status.” FEMA also said it had delivered fuel to 19 hospitals for power generators.

Still, doctors and locals have described rising concern over the availability of diesel to power life-saving equipment. Hurricane Maria has been blamed for at least 18 deaths in the territory.

“This is what’s going to happen with the water, people are going to start getting sick and then there’s not enough space in the hospitals,” Rullán said.

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