It's a New Year and I have never felt so hopeful. If there is one thing I would like to work for in conjunction with others, for the 2018’s resolution is sustainability for Puerto Rico – the same island that though it has many fascinating facts, at the moment, besides the international hit “Despacito”- is mostly renown for being devastated by Hurricane Maria.
On September 20, 2017, after sweeping across the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm, Maria plowed into my homeland through the southeast shore with winds of 155 miles per hour, as a barely diminished Category 4. It was over us for more than 12 hours. I recall the whistling sounds of the wind like a devilish allure (it was so powerful it created pressure in my body, similar to when one scuba dives). The phenomenon shredded buildings, wrecked the electrical power grid and possibly led to more than 1,000 deaths.
This entirely undesirable storm helped me understand many things about my country, some that I had no idea, others that I suspected and a few that I didn’t understand in scale. Days after the catastrophe, my cousin and I went to the streets to help the community and though we were filled with hope, our resources didn’t suffice. With personal funds, supplies from neighbors and acquaintances, we made goodie bags to give out to whoever needed them. The goodie bags had toiletries, canned food, water, baby supplies and candles, among other things. As the word spread, we learned of others that had similar goals and it wasn’t long when we joined forces. We went across the island, from San Juan to Mayagüez, Luquillo to Peñuelas, and in between; from valley to coast, mountains to hills - we went through tough scenarios where even the government and federal aid had not yet arrived.
None of us had power or water; our properties were damaged too. But solidarity empowered us to help out. Bureaucracy was delaying the help to compatriots in need and we had enough. We worked endlessly with dedication – “con el corazón inchao”. We gave it all to heal our homeland but it wasn’t enough, because what we gave was temporary. People would soon run out of these supplies. As a Chinese proverb says, “If you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.” This is were we failed as a community.
I know our visit was not in vain - I just wish we provided them with more than perishables. I will never forget the joy in people’s faces. Many cried with joy, others had a huge smile. In multiple occasions we were invited in their homes, people were generally eager to tell us their side of the story and show us what had happened to their properties and their living conditions. Through it all people just needed to bond.
I remember an old lady in her 70s, the first one we delivered goods in Utuado, in tears saying that instead of Puerto Rico (Rich Port) it should be called “Puerto Pobre” (Poor Port). She hadn’t been helped by anyone, and her veteran son , and only family, had severe PTSD and wasn't really functional.
Maria and Irma brought to the surface (and worsened) Puerto Rico's sanitation, political favoritism, corruption, economy, and education problems - making the chances to recover from an already existing debt of over 70 billion dollars much more challenging. Evidently, the fact that Puerto Rico is an archipelago make the logistics to provide help a challenge and creates delay for all aspects and auxiliaries like power, water, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), phone and internet connection, etc. However, regardless of our geographical standing, many argue that our commonwealth status is what made Trump's visit appear a joke, for our sociopolitical state was rotten way before the current circumstances. Despite the controversy of whether we should become a state or not, the reality is that even in the areas Puerto Rico has control over, as a territory with little power, it cannot rebuild itself on its own. Puerto Rico cannot rely on bankruptcy protections to claw out of the debt owed to hedge funds and vulture funds. All in all, any governmental change must be approved by the United States.
Puerto Rico's stripped topography revealed what has been laying beneath our government system. But just like, within a couple of weeks, the vegetation regrew with stronger and tougher DNA, our community efforts flourished. From the independent brigades of nurses, doctors, chefs, and people with machetes - the comradery was present through out. Every skill set was put to use for the bettering of our island.
People found ways to create their own oasis, generators from car batteries, kitchen systems from scratch to feed towns. However, with amazing cunning, they also found ways to steal from each other in innumerable quantities and forms. It brought everyones’ true colors to light. But with such ingenuity, we failed to create a sustainable tomorrow, and that tomorrow happens to be now...
According to the Webster Dictionary, "sustainability is, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged." Sustainability can be overlooked at times for it can have the misconception of being complicated and perhaps that's what has made it feel so unattainable within our history.
I am currently working abroad and it’s been over two months since I left. Time that I can’t stop thinking about my “india bonita.” I sometimes tear up or reminiscence when I’m able to do simple functional things; drinking water, a warm meal, a nice shower, sleeping without mosquitoes or sweaty sheets, clean clothes… the list goes on.
My family, friends, compatriots – my beloved homeland suffers. I sometimes even feel guilty of having the opportunity to travel, when others have had or opted to stay. But the reality is that my responsibilities call; my family needs me financially and healthily stable; my bills pile up and the nature of my job has always made me a nomad.
I remember my time at the airport. It was packed full a month after Maria. Men, women, elderly – people from all walks of life and different social classes awaited. Some uncertain, others determined – but all with tired eyes. With different reasons for departure, they all waited and hoped for a life change. Some leave because of lost jobs or for limitations by it, for commodity, for wanting to provide a stable education for their children, for needing medical treatment, for wanting to leave from an earlier time but now having the courage to since they have lost so much already.
I overheard a conversation while I waited. Both individuals did not look over 35 and spoke of being on standby, meaning that they had bought a ticket in case space was open on the flight. The woman had just woken up from an uncomfortable nap and asked the man what to do if they couldn’t get on a flight. He mentioned that he planned to call the airline if that happened. He pulls out his phone and shows her the phone number. During their exchange, I see in their faces their discomfort for they might have to come back the next day to wait in line again, and follow the same process over and over until they can board a plane. Much like Puerto Rico is at the dependency of the U.S. in order to rebuild itself - those waiting at the airport, whether they like it or not are subjected to the decision of a larger authority.
A man in his mid 50's recognized the woman, who was just getting ready to get a second nap. After talking about a fellow person they had in common, the conversation turns into why he was leaving. “I’m tired,” the older man repeats several times. “Since the storm ended, the only thing I’ve done is cut tree after tree. The pay is not bad, but no - enough is enough,” he concluded. She nodded but her thoughts were definitely elsewhere, perhaps in taking her long awaited nap, for she too was tired - and with them was the entire country.
For outside the airport walls, in the grin of the merciless Caribbean sun, any task is a hassle. Things like getting water, food, or gas could take up most or all of your day. I remember the long lines that could take up to at least 13 hours just to fill up a tank. Everyone, sweaty and uncertain from top to bottom, out in the streets working for subsistence. We looked just like the many disoriented bees that were flying in circles everywhere - searching for food, shelter and sanity. The flora had been destroyed and like them our consumerism customs irrevocably changed. Now we had to fend for ourselves, but the problem was that as a majority we didn’t promote or develop renewable ways.
Today, about 90 days after the hurricane, the story hasn’t changed much. Power to the entire island has not been restored. According to the PREPA (in Spanish, Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, or AEE), power restoration to Puerto Rico could take a year. The large problem here is that practically the entire country is dependent on it for subsistence. Hospitals, businesses, schools, and even the Authority of Aqueduct and Sewer, need power to work properly. None of them can rely solely on power plants. Puerto Rico's water system was also in trouble long before the storm. According to a report by the Natural Resource Defense Council, Puerto Rico had the worst rate of drinking water violations in any US state or territory. So even when water is restored for the entire island, there is still going be to a huge risk of contamination.
The glitches in the power shutting down after starting back up is due in part to the way it was developed in the beginning. Since the 1940s, much of the commerce spread in the southern part of the island due to the growth of the sugar cane industry, which is why the power plants were built in that area. However, because the largest aquifers are found in the northern side of the island, many pharmaceuticals, dairy farms and businesses built north instead. The south zone, which is the one that produces major electricity, powers most of the island, specially the high demanding north creating insufficiencies and constant break downs.
The lack of electrical power and potable water keeps the country immobile and promotes the exile to other countries. Over 60 thousand people have left – amount that keeps increasing. Though in part the departure is good in regards of overpopulation, the downside is that the working class are the ones leaving. The island now has higher proportions of old and poor communities. Additionally, this emigration wave has created a challenge for housing availability in states like Florida. And aside from statistics these numbers are individual people. To put this in perspective the following people are all in their late teens to mid 20s; one of my cousins is applying for engineering jobs in the states, my best friend will be working as a waitress while promoting her skin care business in a western state, her sister plans to study culinary arts abroad, my step-sister has already looked into housing for her partner and child - the list goes on. With most of the working class out, prosperity for Puerto Rico truly looks dim.
Puerto Rico's energy needs to be renewable and poor water infrastructure must be rebuilt to a standard that is capable of withstanding storms. Roads and bridges should be constructed to prevail against rising waters and fierce winds. Flood maps must be updated, and construction discouraged in vulnerable areas. Also, the large amount of abandoned houses can serve to relocate those living in unsafe areas.
It is the outdated mentality of greed and ignorance that make negative ripples in our subsistence affecting our potential for sustainability. Days after the storm, I recall listening to the radio as outraged reporters mentioned how diesel was distributed to luxury restaurants over hospitals where people were on the verge of life and death. The sketchy contract of about 300 million dollars between PREPA and the infamous Whitefish is also another reflection of many years of untenable decisions:
- Puerto Rico, approximately 100 X 35 miles, similar to Connecticut in size, has 78 municipalities when 8 would be more than enough. This means that there are 78 mayors with assistants, security personnel and amenities, increasing unnecessary taxes to the citizens.
- Puerto Rico has no proven reserves or production of conventional fossil fuels. And though we have some renewable solar, wind, hydropower, and biomass resources, we rely primarily on imported fossil fuels to meet energy needs.
- Over 80% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported, though most land is fertile.
- A 97 year old law called, The Jones Act, has also affected our prosperity. It requires that goods shipped from one American port to another be transported on a ship that is American-built, American-owned, and crewed by US citizens or permanent residents. Basic shipments of goods from the island to the US mainland, and vice versa, must be conducted via expensive protected ships rather than exposing them to global competition. That makes everything Puerto Ricans buy unnecessarily expensive relative to goods purchased on either the US mainland or other Caribbean islands, and drives up the cost of living on the island overall. In a crisis, this is another stab in the liver to say the least and though it has been temporarily lifted, it will soon hinder our growth if not banned or adjusted.
I can continue mentioning other scenarios but you get the point. It is vital to plant and promote sustainable ideas so that they come naturally to the table, creating positive ripples. It is all attainable from a business standpoint too.
Tesla's renewable energy project for Hospital del Niño (Children’s Hospital) in San Juan has gotten quite the attention. Empowered by Light, Sunrun, and Givepower are working on renewable energy projects as well, chiefly solar power, and donors are pitching in for small scale solar arrays.
There have been local organizations setting an example even before Maria. I have personally volunteered for most and can vouch for their dedication and tenacity. So please, if you intend to help Puerto Rico, do it through or with them:
- Para La Naturaleza = nonprofit that integrates society into the conservation of natural ecosystems. They have created a direct relief to communities near natural protected areas, provide assistance to sustainable agricultural efforts, and jumpstart the process of reforestation and restoration of natural habitats across Puerto Rico.
- CESAM = educational chapter from the University of Puerto Rico focused on ocean conservation.
- CORALations = nonprofit organization protects and restores coral reefs.
- Rescate Playas Borinquen = nonprofit that organizes beach cleanups, tree planting (erosion prevention), and works to make beaches more accessible, safe, and enjoyable for public use.
- Desde Mi Huerto = donates organic seeds to farmers in order to help uplift their farms after Hurricane Maria.
- Estuario a la Bahía de San Juan = lift and restore the San Juan Estuary's ecosystem and the well-being of the communities and economies that depend on it.
If interested in helping in another form, I recommend doing it through an eco-friendly manner by providing: water filters, solar power flashlights, winding radios, books on renewable DIY projects, etc.
I hope that this new year sets the stage with ideas and efforts that re-build a stronger and “smarter” community. Puerto Rico's power grid should be updated, in a more resilient, and not dependent on expensive, polluting imports. With solutions like electricity by gravity, roof tops able to harvest rain (like in Bermuda) ,and educational efforts on the subject, we can amend our effects on the environment and thus our livelihood.
Any construction and economic effort must take into consideration climate change. Spectacle and politicians are ephemeral. Nor Trump, nor Carmen Yulin Cruz, will be forever in office. Puerto Rico, in the geographical context, will remain in the passage of hurricanes. Maria’s hit has been hard and though undesirable, in its silver lining it has helped wake up the entire country from its wrong practices, and with it, other countries. A sustainable future is attainable, if we all work towards it, of course. Just like the beautiful sunrise I saw in the morning after Maria and the double rainbow later in the day, I know we can get through this. Solidarity, among many other things, has kept us afloat and the beginnings of sustainability are thriving.