Puerto Rico’s Struggle Post Hurricane Maria

Ambar and her sister Coral.

I have many fond memories of hurricane season in Puerto Rico: eating tasty dumplings my mom whipped up using a single burner propane gas stove, playing board games day and night with my siblings, or splashing around in the rain water we collected in 55 gallon bins. I also have memories of the times we weren't so lucky—living without power and water for what seemed like months, endless sweaty, sleepless, mosquito ridden nights without electric ventilation, eating nonperishable food for weeks, and taking cold showers with buckets of water. After a while, the restlessness set in and you wanted things to go back to normal—running water, electricity, going to school, and seeing your friends.

This time was not one of the lucky ones.

Hurricane Maria was the fifth strongest storm ever to hit the US. Even though Puerto Rico is not a state, Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. If Puerto Rico were a state, it would be the 30th most populous with more people than Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska combined.

In these photos NOAA compares Puerto Ricos light output from space on July 4th to what it looked like post Hurricane Maria. The small clusters of light you see are likely powered by gas generators.

As I write this, 70% of the island is still without power. About 60,000 of those residents haven’t had power for 8 weeks, since hurricane Irma ravaged several Caribbean islands on September 7th. Even without hurricanes, power outages are frequent and electric bills for Puerto Ricans are outrageously high. Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has a debt worth billions and for years it hasn’t had the money to invest in modernizing the electrical systems.

House destroyed by winds in Toa Baja Photo Ricardo Arduengo.

Partially flooded houses in Cataño - Photo Ricardo Arduengo.

Last week Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority awarded a controversial 300 million dollar deal to help restore electricity on the island to a company in Montana called Whitefish Energy Holdings, which until recently had only two employees. Whitefish would subcontract utility companies to carry out the restoration effort and bill the subcontractor’s labor at a very high rate. On Sunday, after days of intense scrutiny and a federal investigation into the contract, the Governor of Puerto Rico asked PREPA to cancel the contract, delaying the restoration efforts another 10-12 weeks.

Meanwhile, many people are getting by with gas powered generators. Conditions and peak hours needed for solar power are ripe on the island, but unfortunately solar power is not yet widespread due in part to PREPA’s restriction on the battery packs that are needed to store solar energy. However, Tesla, Resilient Power Puerto Rico, and others have slowly been installing solar panels, solar roof tiles, and battery packs in several locations.

Solar Panels Buena Vista Community Center Hato Rey, San Juan.

Man tries to repair generator in San Juan.

All but 240 of the island's 1,600 cell phone towers were knocked out leaving communities isolated for weeks, and for many the signal is still spotty. Lack of communication is part of the problem. Information on communities needs and how to best and safely deploy resources is very limited. Luckily we can all help support the work of Connect Relief and the Puerto Rico National Guard by funding campaigns like Help PR Despacito. In the mean time, temporary solutions like Google’s Project Loon  are working to bring balloon-powered internet to the island.

A Loon balloon on its way to Puerto Rico from Nevada.

The NY Times reported that in a matter of hours Hurricane Maria wiped out about 80% of the crop value in PR.

Puerto Rico imports most of its food and residents pay a high price for it due to legislation like the Jones Act (the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) which requires goods shipped between the United States to be carried by vessels built, owned, and (mostly) operated by Americans. Shipping costs for goods from the US mainland using US vessels are some of the highest  in the world. These costs are then passed on to Puerto Rican consumers, a tough cost for most citizens to bear!  If Puerto Rico were a state it would be the poorest state, lagging far behind the poorest US State, Mississippi, with a median household income of roughly $18,000.

Today the Jones Act still stands and as Senator John McCain adds:

It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies, and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.
— Senator John McCain

A temporary 10 day waiver of the act was passed 8 days after hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico expanding temporary access to food, medicine, clothing, building supplies, and oil needed for power plants. The ten days have since expired.

I could go on and on. The truth is that the situation in Puerto Rico is beyond complicated, but it doesn't change the fact that many Puerto Ricans need our help. Here’s how you can help:

  • United for Puerto Rico: A charity organization chaired by Beatriz Rosselló, the wife of the governor, to provide aid and support to victims of Hurricane Maria. You can give here.

  • ConPRmetidos: The Puerto Rican organization focused on public-private partnership is aiming to raise $10 million for relief and recovery. You can give here.

  • Global Giving: A charity crowdfunding site that is attempting to raise $5 million to be used exclusively for local relief and recovery efforts. You can give here. (4/4 stars from Charity Navigator.)

  • Speak Spanish? Offer translation services to International or US based organizations looking to help but need to translate their materials.

Stay open and alert to opportunities, the process of rebuilding will be long and slow. In this era of fast news cycles, one day it might not be so popular to discuss Puerto Rico’s struggle and this crisis might just become yesterday’s news.

Ambar Margarida, CID, IIDA, LEED GA, Principal

Ambar Margarida, CID, IIDA, LEED GA, Principal