Puerto Rico Plumbers Have Heavy Workload in Hurricane Maria Aftermath

Here are the experiences of a few plumbing firms as they deal with the effects of one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the island
Puerto Rico Plumbers Have Heavy Workload in Hurricane Maria Aftermath
Flooding in Dorado, Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria.

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After Hurricane Maria and its 175 mph winds hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, communications were down for Planet Plumbing and Sewer Cleaning in San Juan. People used a different method for requesting service from the company — literally knocking on co-owner David Burgos’ front door.

“I have a big billboard at the back of my house and they came to my front door asking for service,” Burgos says. “They needed water, and had problems with clogged toilets and broken pipes. Many of our clients have cisterns on their roofs and many were broken or had the motors damaged. A few had their cisterns blown away.”

Burgos also personally went to customers’ homes and neighborhoods to see who needed water. The firm’s office was still connected to the water supply. When he showed up, many people lined up to fill containers.

Over a month since the devastating storm hit the island, residents of Puerto Rico are still very much feeling the effects. Power restoration has been slow going, and many are still struggling to gain consistent access to clean drinking water. At the center of the aftermath are plumbing firms like Planet Plumbing, given the services they’re able to provide. Here are the experiences of some of them.

Planet Plumbing

Planet Plumbing fortunately suffered little damage to its office and was able to be fully operational, outside of communications, immediately following the storm.

“The hurricane shattered the gates to the office, but we had no other damage. We were operating the day after the hurricane,” Burgos says. “One of our neighbors had a broken pipe and we fixed it. In the first week, the need was for potable water and water to flush toilets. We didn’t have to do a lot of actual plumbing and sewer cleaning — we were filling cisterns at the homes of 100 of our clients.”

For the first two weeks, the company’s three plumbers were working up to 14-hour days, using only the supplies they already had in their trucks since many supply houses were closed or had limited operations.

“Many people are asking for new cisterns, but there are not enough them. People cannot buy them on their own and it is difficult for us to find them,” Burgos says.

A rooftop cistern filled up with Planet Plumbing's US Jetting 4018 jetter.

The Planet Plumbing crew still has a lot of work but is now doing more manageable eight- to 10-hour days.

“Right now people are calling us to repair and clean pipes, and some people who lost homes or had them heavily damaged are asking for estimates,” Burgos says. “The week before I was fully booked, and this one is a little bit slower. Every day is different. About 70 percent of the work we’re doing now is for new customers that were referred to us.”

Portable generators are a key tool for Planet Plumbing at the moment.

“A lot of people who need help with draining clogged pipes have no electricity, so unless you can bring power to them, they cannot be helped,” Burgos says.

Rod Rodder Service Inc.

The Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, the water utility for the island, has had to rely on plumbing firms, subcontracting with many of them to get a handle on all the work that has to be done. Rod Rodder Service Inc., a large firm with 110 employees and offices in San Juan and Ponce, has been among them. More than half of the company’s crews and vehicles have been working on the behalf of the utility at times, clearing septic tanks and pumping wastewater among facilities.

“The sanitary lines basically collapsed in a lot of places,” says general manager Ben Quintana. “The situation is improving water wise and our crews are still helping them out with water delivery and sewage.”

While the utility has needed much of the company’s large equipment, Rod Rodder’s fleet of 32 service vans has also been plenty busy. The island’s plumbing companies are stretched thin, Quintana says.

“Years ago there used to be a lot more plumbing companies, but in the recession of 2008, a lot of them disappeared when many people left the island,” Quintana says. “There is a demand for plumbers and electricians. Our plumbers are doing everything related to plumbing, with people needing to replace pipes, cisterns, and toilets. We’re dealing with 100 calls a day when we usually get 30 to 35 a day, and we don’t have the manpower to cover everybody. Our people are working seven days a week, often 12 hours a day. In our business, if you are not there within the hour, they’ll call somebody else, but people are actually waiting for us to arrive.”

Rod Rodder’s San Juan office was able to maintain its potable water access, so water deliveries to customers have also kept the company busy.

“We’re still delivering between 12,000 and 14,000 gallons of water daily,” says Quintana.

Reliable Plumbing

Reliable Plumbing in San Juan worked out of co-owner Alejandro Santiago’s home initially following the storm. Employees didn’t return to the office until Oct. 12.

“Our office lost power and experienced a bit of flooding, and one of our security walls fell down. We were working from my home, which had better communications,” Santiago says.

Getting to customers continues to be challenging, he says.

“The difficult thing is getting around due to the traffic jams, which are big, and going from house to house takes a lot of time. There are no lights for crossing the streets and it’s chaotic,” Santiago says. “We cover a 30-mile radius around San Juan and there are still places where we cannot go because those areas have been cut off.”

The heavy workload is making it difficult to respond to customers as quickly as Reliable Plumbing would be able to do under normal conditions. Santiago recalls one situation where a customer’s home was experiencing flooding due to a pipe break. Normally a plumber would’ve been able to immediately respond, but it took three hours for a plumber to arrive.

“They were impatient, but understood that we are all having problems,” he says. “We’re all in the same boat. If we’re a bit late or have to reschedule if the problem is not big enough, they understand it.”

Water Works Suppliers

Water Works Suppliers, a plumbing supplies distributor just outside of San Juan, is doing its best to provide materials to contractors despite some limitations. For example, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other organizations have contracted most of the space on the barges bringing supplies to Puerto Rico. While Water Works Suppliers has plenty of everyday parts and materials in its warehouse, it is struggling to bring in new, special materials, says co-owner Antonio Morera.

“At this time we are mostly supplying emergency material to repair pipe that was washed away by the hurricane,” Morera says. “Our business has been opened since day one, with a lot of emergency orders. We have no electricity, or telephones, or mobile phones — communications are very limited. We now have water and internet service. We suffered minor damage in the warehouse, but lost the ceiling in part of our offices. Our material was secure and suffered very little damage and the delivery vehicles were kept safe inside the warehouse.

“A lot of roads have been washed away and many bridges have collapsed or are closed for security reasons. No electricity and most of the traffic lights are gone, and it is very hard to move in the metropolitan area. In the remote towns there are areas still unreachable, with food and water being dropped in by helicopters.”

In addition to traditional plumbing work, Puerto Rico’s plumbers have also been taking on other disaster relief efforts. Check out PlumberMag.com tomorrow to read more.


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