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In Puerto Rico's Capital, A Community Struggles To Fix Preexisting Problems

Neighbors of a strangled channel in the heart of San Juan look for relief.

On rainy days, Blanquita Santiago Arroyo stacks empty beer cases under the furniture of her nearly empty house. Her refrigerator — the third she’s bought in 10 years — and washing machine already sit atop three sets of worn cinder blocks.

Three-foot-high watermarks remind her it’s unsafe to sleep in her wooden bed, even when it’s lifted on milk crates. As bedtime approaches, Santiago Arroyo sets up in a plastic chair, where she tries to rest until the morning comes.

“There comes a time where you’re exhausted, and you see everyone sleeping, and you can’t go to bed because you have to keep an eye out for how high the water will rise,” she said.

The constant threat of flooding makes Santiago Arroyo yearn to leave her home of more than 30 years. But it’s the water that forces her to stay.

“It’s going to be very difficult to sell the house,” she said. “Because once you tell the people what the problem is, they won’t buy it, unless they have money and are thinking of investing.”

Her grandmother purchased the property in the 1980s, and the house flooded for the first time three years later. Santiago Arroyo and her family were taken to a shelter.

“I almost drowned because the water was so high,” she recalled.

In Calle Martinó, where her home stands, the storm drains have for decades been clogged with trash and sediment from El Caño Martín Peña, a now-stagnate tidal channel that once flowed across San Juan.

“El Caño,” as many call it, stretches for nearly 4 miles, connecting the San Juan Bay with the San José Lagoon, the two biggest bodies of water in Puerto Rico’s capital. Hurricane María pushed fallen trees and remnants of houses into the channel, adding to the decades of sedimentation, garbage and untreated water.

The polluted channel is the root of numerous problems for 25,000 residents in the eight surrounding neighborhoods ― San Juan’s most densely populated area.

El Caño de Martín Peña, a now-stagnant tidal canal, once flowed across San Juan. Now strangled with tras
El Caño de Martín Peña, a now-stagnant tidal canal, once flowed across San Juan. Now strangled with trash and sediment, it floods and pollutes the surrounding communities. An environmental justice initiative seeks to give life back to the once healthy waterway by dredging it and making infrastructural repairs.

Most houses adjacent to the channel were built on a flood plain without government permits or professional supervision, as are nearly half the homes on the island, government officials estimate. Because El Caño is a tidal channel, the ebb and flow of ocean tides dictate its level. Storm surges and even moderate rainfall, as well as the lack of an adequate sewage system in some streets, result in regular flooding episodes as the channel overflows into houses and puts the residents at a higher risk for a variety of health problems, including respiratory, gastrointestinal and mosquito-borne diseases.

María destroyed 75 homes near El Caño and left another 1,200 roofless. Streets like Santiago Arroyo’s remained flooded for weeks.

A public corporation the Puerto Rican government established 16 years ago, Proyecto ENLACE, has studied the possibility of dredging almost 2,500 tons of materials from the channel. They already have a detailed plan and are looking to obtain federal recovery and flood mitigation funds to implement the $800 million project — which they hoped might finally be possible in the wake of Maria.

They have sought $215 million for the dredging and another $585 million to help rehouse families, install better storm sewage systems and modernize drinking water pipelines. But the benefits of the dredging far outweigh the costs, Proyecto ENLACE Executive Director Livia Rodríguez del Valle told the U.S. House of Representatives last November at a hearing for environmental concerns after the 2017 hurricane season.

A healthy waterway in the heart of the capital could create 4,000 tourism jobs and add more than $500 million to the island’s gross domestic product.

The Roots

Sitting on a stool on the porch of his house, wearing a T-shirt that reads “El CAÑO” and a newsboy cap, José Caraballo Pagán stops carving wooden ornaments for a rehousing committee meeting. For the next two hours, he and seven of his neighbors debate who will vacate their home first.

Around 1,000 houses that sit near the channel must be vacated to make room for the heavy machinery needed to dredge and widen the channel.

Caraballo Pagán, 72, lives just 25 feet away from the channel. He is one the leaders of G-8 Inc., a nonprofit run by members of the communities around El Caño. The rehousing committee, which could soon move him out of his home of 55 years, meets every Thursday.

“It’s not that I want to go, but I know I have to do it for the well-being of my community, for the people here,” he said. “You have to be conscientious and leave behind 50 years of your life for the well-being of the people but also for the waterway.”

José Caraballo Pagán, a community activist and government worker, has lived near El Caño since 1963. He
José Caraballo Pagán, a community activist and government worker, has lived near El Caño since 1963. He likens the communities around the canal to the roots of a mangrove tree. “Fifth generations live in here. We don’t move too much. We like to grow roots.”

Like many farm laborers in the first half of the 20th century, Caraballo Pagán’s father moved to San Juan from the countryside as the island’s economy shifted from agriculture to industry-based. In 1955, he bought a house in Fanguito, a neighborhood that once sat on the western edge of the channel.

By the second half of the 20th century, Fanguito disappeared as the government claimed the land through eminent domain to dredge the canal and build a water transportation system. Caraballo Pagán said his father obtained $500 from the government in 1955 and bought the house in Barrio Obrero Marina, a neighborhood north of the channel, where he has lived ever since.

“I’ve been fixing it here and there throughout the years,” he said. “Poco a poco. But what’s the worth of a million-dollar house if you have a waterway you can’t even look at?”

You have to be conscientious and leave behind 50 years of your life for the well-being of the people but also for the waterway. Caraballo Pagán

Today, his two-story house has a double-height ceiling and cozy living spaces on the first floor, a small kitchen and a front yard where he carves artisanal ornaments.

He’s watched El Caño, as he fondly calls it, shrink over the years. At its widest, he said, it was 400 feet. Today, it’s so blocked with vegetation and garbage in some areas that people can walk from shore to shore.

“It was a navigable body of water,” he said. “People used to fish; the youth swam in it.”  

Caraballo Pagán retired 10 years ago from his job as a building maintenance worker at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Since then, he’s been a champion of his community’s fight for environmental justice.

“If you have a healthy environment, you have clean water,” he said. “You have healthy people.”

Recurring Concerns

Proyecto ENLACE’s Rodriguez del Valle says that throughout the years, the state and municipal government have gradually installed storm sewage systems in some streets. Three years ago, the infrastructure was built so every home in the area received clean drinking water.

But the problems persist. The corroded drinking water pipes break often, interrupting service to homes. When it floods, toilets overflow, mixing sewage and rainwater.

Only 45 percent of homes in Puerto Rico have sanitary sewers managed by the Puerto Rican Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), which officials estimate is also representative of the neighborhoods in El Caño. While some residents have septic wells, more than 3,000 houses still discharge raw sewage into the channel, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In preparation for the channel’s dredging, two major drinking water pipes that were built close to the water’s surface must be rebuilt to avoid the machinery breaking the already existing pipes.

A block from the headquarters of Proyecto ENLACE, a colorful mural reminds passersby that “El Caño Vive.”
A block from the headquarters of Proyecto ENLACE, a colorful mural reminds passersby that “El Caño Vive.”

Because of the island’s fiscal crisis, PRASA can’t borrow money from the federal government for capital expenses, like the piping needed to dredge the canal. But ENLACE already allocated funds for one of the major plumbing projects in El Caño. And in July, they learned that their application for dredging funds to the Army Corps of Engineers had been denied ― setting them back again, indefinitely.

Proyecto ENLACE estimates that further delaying dredging could add more than $700 million in repair costs.

Apart from the flooding, Santiago Arroyo feels fortunate that only a small portion of her roof was blown away as a result of María. In December, before the power was restored, an 82-year-old uncle she cared for fell in the dark as he attempted to climb over the knee-high walls built to keep water off their porch. He broke his hip, and, after complications from an operation, died in February.

A healthy waterway in the heart of the capital could create 4,000 tourism jobs and add more than $500 million to the island’s gross domestic product.

Now it’s only Santiago Arroyo and her 11-year-old dachshund, Poppy, in the house.

The number of El Caño residents who fled after the hurricane hasn’t been officially counted, but on just her street, one house is for sale and another is abandoned and collapsed during the storm.

While the plans to dredge include installing a proper storm sewage system on her street, Santiago Arroyo is still hoping to move away.

“I’m going to be older, and I won’t be able to get the water out by myself,” she said. “I don’t have the same strength, but nobody will buy this house to struggle.”

Photos and video by Matt Couch, Nathan Klima, Alexis Fairbanks and Kaitlin Harlow. Graphics by Justin Wynn and Madison Walls. With contributions from University of Puerto Rico students Sabrina Cádiz, María Isabel Matos and Elisa Gómez.

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