On the Ground In Puerto Rico — Part 2

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On the Ground In Puerto Rico — Part 2

November 13th, 2017 by  


On October 31, News Agent carried a story about the work Joseph Mangum is doing in Puerto Rico in “On the Ground in Puerto Rico.” For those who don’t know, Joseph runs Sunnyside Solar in West Brattleboro, Vermont. He was accompanied on much of his trip by his friend Mark Lamoureux, who works installing solar systems in Keene, New Hampshire.

The forests around Utuado, Puerto Rico, were largely destroyed by the storm. US Department of Agriculture Photo, Master Sgt. Joshua DeMotts | 1st Combat Camera Squadron

That story had news of his first two days in the San Juan area. At that time he was still having trouble getting the solar panels that he had shipped to the island. They were to be the generators for five solar systems he intended to put in.

We knew then that he would probably be out of touch with us for some time. There was no electricity for most of the island, and no internet access or phone service. So while he toiled, we had to wait for word.

I started getting phone calls and emails from him on November 8. At first, the phone connections were so poor that I was unable to make out about half the words he said. Nevertheless, I was able to get a sense of what was going on. Emails came next, and though they were short, because he had a lot of work to do, they had more information.

Joseph has installed all five PV systems, though not always as he had planned. He has also distributed food, water purification systems, and seeds. He started in the San Juan area, in a place called San José. The first of the 1-kilowatt (kW) systems was installed in a bicycle shop. Local people can gather there and get hit by a breeze from a fan as they charge their cell phones.

The community of Juncos is south of San Juan, and a little farther east. Coastal communities, like San Juan, have had a lot more attention from the federal government than those in the interior, like Juncos. While power outages are a reality in San Juan, the situation in Juncos is much worse. Joseph and Mark installed two systems there.

One of the systems in Juncos was put up at a repair shop to provide power for battery-powered tools. These are of much more importance than one might realize. Many of the tools on the island were lost in the storm, as garages and shops were destroyed by the wind and flooding. And now, when they are needed to get things back together, they are not available. The owner of the shop is a man named Mingo, who lives near one of Joseph’s relatives. Like all the other systems that Joseph and Mark installed, this system was made available to people of the area to charge their phones and get wifi-to-satellite access.

The second system in Juncos was set up at a shelter where elderly people gather. In addition to its other duties, it provides a little comfort in the heat to people who are very vulnerable. The importance of a little energy where there would otherwise be none is hard to overstate. Joseph said, “George, you have no idea how brutal this heat can be,” as he spoke of the elderly people who were suffering. Similarly, a little energy can put people in connection with their loved ones. So a 1-kW system can be a real boon to people who would otherwise go without.

Joseph’s original plan had been to put four systems up at emergency shelters, but this was changed. By the time he arrived with the somewhat delayed solar panels, the Army Corps of Engineers had already visited some of the sites he had plans for, leaving off generators and other supplies. I want to stress that while the soldiers did a great deal of hard work, they did only a tiny fraction of what was needed.

Certainly, some of the resources that could have gone to Puerto Rico were allocated to other areas of the United States, including Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia. The problem I have with this is that though those areas were hit first, meaning that they automatically got priority simply because of timing, Puerto Rico is, in fact, part of the United States, and the people in need there are, in fact, citizens of this country. I have worked with a number of Puerto Ricans, and I found them to be decent, hard-working, and honest people. They do not deserve to be neglected. Now the Army has been told to pull out, with only a tiny fraction of the work finished, leaving only the National Guard to carry on.

Joseph traveled into the mountainous areas of the center of the island. Everywhere there were people in need, but he was trying to put the solar systems where they would do the most good for the most people. In Ciales, he found a mushroom farm that needed electricity. The mushrooms are being raised for food for the local people. Joseph said of the people who worked there, “What a lovely crew!”

In Utuado, he installed a solar system that would supply the minimum power requirements for a greenhouse that grows a variety of tropical vegetables. Once again, this offers a look at the importance of small systems. The 1-kW system Joseph installed enables growing a large amount of food in a place where there is almost no food to be had, and there is, for practical purposes, no ground transportation to bring any in.

The greenhouse had also needed seeds. Joseph was able to provide enough to keep going for a while, and is arranging for well over 100,000 more to be brought in.

All these tidbits of information do not really convey how bad things are. Joseph said in one email, “The interior of the island is largely forgotten, the mountains could just as well be Timbuktu. Devastation is everywhere. Rosemary’s grandmother’s neighborhood is all hazardous poles in the middle of the street hanging down. There are literally power cables running along her outer fence in the front yard.”

He told me that the local people could not clear away the power poles they had to pass under on the roads, or move a transformer that blocked the road, because it is a federal offense to touch them. Even though there cannot be electricity to them because there is no power, they have to sit and wait, day after day, for help that does not come to remove road hazards. He said he believes the estimates of the time needed to restore the grid are overly optimistic, and that in some areas it will take well over a year, perhaps even two years.

“Those with means are okay,” he said in an email. “They can make the trip to the larger coastal towns and buy food, water and gas for their generators. The poor are literally out in the rain. Most had barely running cars that Maria finished and they have also lost houses, garages, tools etc.. There is no water and power will be years away.” He spoke often of people needing food.

Electric power, water, and food are only part of the problem, he said. “There are dogs everywhere because the owners fled or the dogs just ran in terror.” He spoke of the dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and other animals that wander around, without care or intervention.

He is changing his focus. He is now working on delivering food and water, seeds, solar lights, tools, and building supplies. He said one especially vexing problem is that while there are solar panels in many areas, they are not set up to run off-grid, and there are no deep-cycle batteries available, so batteries have become a priority.

The economic conditions in Puerto Rico are making the problem worse. Though it is part of the United States, the island has a special status. This means that while it gets some benefits, it also has some real disadvantages. One problem, Joseph told me, is that the minimum wage is $4 per hour. That would be fine in a place where everything is less expensive, but the reverse is the case. Most things cost more, and so everyone who works for a living has a much harder time.

The reason it is difficult to get batteries, or just about anything else, to Puerto Rico is partly that even though the goods are being shipped from the United States to the United States, there is an import duty on the island. Also, all of the shipping from other parts of the United States to Puerto Rico has to be done on ships that have US registration, making things much more difficult to orchestrate.

The level of difficulty highlights some of the failures of privatization. One is the road system. It was privatized, I am told, so all the roads are toll roads. In theory, the upkeep of the roads is to be done by the people who own them and collect the tolls. But in practice, sustainability has been ignored, and so the tolls are taken on roads that are in rapid decay, with little attempt to keep them up. The end of this would seem clear: When the roads are too bad to keep without major repairs costing a lot of money, the owners, who have already received the profits, can declare the business bankrupt and walk away. The devastation of Maria has made this very much worse.

A further problem is a sort of continuation of archaic Spanish colonial systems that the US government really should never have permitted. In many places, tenant farmers have been working in exchange for a place to live and the ability to get some of the crops raised. Landowners have sometimes paid for services in credits, which can be cashed in at a local store, combining a type of feudalism with the nineteenth-century company store. The result of this is that many people have been working without pay under circumstances that are very hard to escape.

When Maria hit, these people’s houses were destroyed, because they were of very cheap construction. The crops, tools, and supplies were also destroyed by the storm. The cars they had access to are gone. The stores where they had credits are gone. Because they were never paid, they have never had any opportunity to save money, and so they have none. They are living under scraps of building materials salvaged from the wreckage, without food, without water, and without hope. They are American citizens, and the government of the United States is disgracing itself in the way it is letting them down.

For those who are interested, the Sunnyside Solar campaign is still going on, and any donations will fund more solar systems or provide other support. It can be visited at www.gofundme.com/solargens4pr.


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