Nancy Wilson-Rhoades and Bev Kehoe traveled to Puerto Rico to assess appropriate sites for the Power on Puerto Rico Portable Solar Charging Stations (POP or SOS). This is a joint project of Amurtel, an international relief organization directed by Joni Zweig, and Amicus, a consortium of US solar power companies, including Aegis, owned by Nils Behn. The short-term goal is 10 trailers with 2 kilowatts of power that are loaned to communities without power. More than 100 days after Hurricane Maria, more than 50% of Puerto Rico is without power (officials say 40% but…).
Here are some initial stories.
Frederick Figueroa is descended from generations of coffee farmers in Indeiras, Maricao, in the mountains 3000 feet above Sabana Grande in southwestern Puerto Rico. He studies animal sciences at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez and on class day drives more than one hour each way on steep and winding roads. He spoke about possibly getting an apartment closer to campus but his parents are rather strict. Part of his university life includes volunteering with Instituto, a non-profit organization committed to building stronger communities. Before the Hurricane (for sure, people speak of ‘before Maria’ and ‘after…’), he focused on setting up a training/learning center in the Indieras area, but then shifted to relief work. He and other classmates visit homes to distributed water, food, clothes as well as the solar-powered flashlights that were donated by Verilux soon after Maria hit.
It is said that Indieras is the region where the last of the decimated Tainos people hid when the Spaniards went on their rampage and declared that the Taino people were no more. Later the area was recognized and named as ‘the place where the Indians live.’ Some people don’t believe the story and think they were truly exterminated while others believe that all Puerto Ricans must have a trace of Taino in them. In any case, this area is remote! Mostly Spanish is spoken (although many of the university students have a connected-via-the-internet, barely-accented fluency in English) and most are farmers or laborers.
Frederick’s home is painted bright yellow and sits on a manicured lawn at the crest of a hill. On this sunny day, it looks like a modest suburban home. But it’s been without power for more than 100 days, and counting into the unforeseeable future. When the hurricane started at 2 am on September 20 (a date and time etched into local consciousness), the wind was terrifying. His cousin Luis, a pre-med student, described hearing voices in the winds as the storm raged through the day. Both cousins emphasized that Maria, rather than discouraging them, strengthened resolve to continue their studies and realize their commitment to helping others.Frederick showed the expanse of sparsely vegetated (but greening) hillsides that were lush with coffee 4 months ago. At the home of his great uncle, people come for water from his well. This is a potential site for one of the SOS units as people come here already for help, there is a strong trust and community connection, no thought of political gain from the unit (an expressed concern), it sits next to a church, and is gated. His aunt Sylvia showed enthusiasm for this possibility. The backyard is filled with baby coffee plants and the family has a coffee drying business. Frederick said, ‘After Maria, we thought all was lost but then people started to come in with coffee to dry; it was unbelievable; it gave us all hope.” He is so enthusiastic about the SOS project and explained that “we cannot do it by ourselves.”
Manuel Toledo, is a professor of electronics at the University of Puerto Rico and his wife Angela handles several rental properties, renting mostly to students. Manuel’s father lives with them, along with 2 dogs, 2 cats and many birds in the trees. We are staying in a studio apartment that they usually rent to students. We climbed the spiral staircase to the roof terrace where Angela explained how she bolted down the solar panels before the hurricane and was surprised that they survived but the water tank went flying and had to get recaptured. She recounted how they boarded up all the windows except for a few off the protected patio so they could see what was happening but they were sorry they didn’t board those up too! The storm raged for the day and into the night, and the rain for 4 days. After the high winds stopped, they went outside to assess and repair. Their driveway was blocked by massive tree trunks so they were home for 4 days before they were able to clear. Mahesh was the only one in the house strong enough to handle the gas-fired chainsaw (the electric one was useless) and, although they had solar panels, they had no water. And it rained for 4 days so the panels were sleeping!
At the Rincon farmers market, a young couple selling tamarind juice and cocoa butter sunscreen now travel one hour to the market because they still have no power and had to move back in with one of their parents. The flashlights that Verilux donated will help when they go back to their powerless home to rebuild their business, Island Lyfe.
The stories are recited in varying voices, sometimes with drama, or with tears, alacrity, resignation or acceptance, but they are always accompanied with thoughts about the next hurricane season. There’s talk about the 6 or 8 months left to get ready. Damiana, a normally sunny and positive owner of a paddleboard rental company, spoke if there’s a next time: “PR will be done.”
Crispin, a defacto leader in an neighborhood in Anasco that flooded to the first floor from the confluence of river and ocean, said his area doesn’t need an SOS because they got power (just last week!) but reminded us that we are ‘not too late for next time.’ He gave a tour of an elementary school that closed for budgetary reasons and he is cooking up a plan for a community training and learning there and planted seeds in the raised beds in the yard. He is growing beans and spinach, and university students are building more beds. “The sun, the air, the soil,” he recites as he tenderly trims the green leaves, “this is the future of Puerto Rico.”
As of this writing we are soon off to other communities for the next few days. We will have more stories and pictures to share. We are still needing money to complete and ship the trailers and appreciate any help you can give.
Luisa Seijo Maldonado of the Instituto para el Desarrollo de las Communicades-Siemprevivas, which is handling the distribution of more than 4000 solar-powered flashlights that were donated soon after Maria hit. These flashlights are part of care packages that are distibuted to homes without power. Folks are thrilled to receive them for the present but also for ‘the next time.’