Many liken the conditions in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria to Detroit and other cities that have gone bankrupt, but it could be even more vulnerable, if that’s possible. Puerto Rico is a colony, geographically isolated as an island, generally poor in comparison to the rest of the US, and populated by people of color. Any efforts to rebuild at this point must take into account the idea of sovereignty, and, ultimately, for whom Puerto Rico will be rebuilt, because in the absence of effective governance, the people of Puerto Rico have been self-governing. This, many of the leaders I spoke with said, makes the situation a “blessing in disguise.”
These stories are important because they discuss disaster relief in more comprehensive terms, particularly in areas that already have significant infrastructure issues, or that have entered what Dmitry Orlov (leading collapse scholar) calls a process of collapse. It lays a broader base of understanding about how important it is to look at the context where the catastrophe happens and what is required not only to rebuild, but to build anew. This cascade of events created a vacuum in which new processes, structures, and systems arise. For those of us who care about the state of the world and the futures that are possible, it is crucial to understand these events better, so that we are better informed and well prepared to shape the world in which we want to live.
In summary, Puerto Rico’s nonprofits are at the forefront of adaptive responses to climate change, local economics, and self-governance after the collapse of a government that is increasingly disconnected from its citizens. These issues are reflected in each of the areas in which nonprofits are trying to rebuild the island—the economy, energy, housing, education. Their work reflects the complexity and challenges of the situation. What will be the resolution?
A Brooklyn Nonprofit Addresses Climate Change in Puerto Rico
By now, many of us have heard and read countless stories about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, especially that almost five months later, some of the island still does not have electricity. But we may not have heard about the work of Puerto Rican nonprofits fighting for the right of Puerto Rican residents to choose the type of power infrastructure necessary for an island at the forefront of climate change. One of the organizations I visited in Puerto Rico in December, El Puente, is at the center of the story.
El Puente, a recognized community human rights organization headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, launched a program in Puerto Rico in 2013 with a convening on the effects of climate change on the island. Luis Garden Acosta, founder and CEO, told NPQ, in response to a question about what inspired him to open a site in Puerto Rico, “We realized that the Caribbean would have to pay for the sins of the States in regards to our carbon footprint. Sure, there will be some events happening here, like Hurricane Sandy, but, ultimately, it’s the Caribbean that would be paying the price.”
The governor of Puerto Rico at the time, Alejandro Garcia Padilla; then- and current San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz; and the local head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, among 200 others, attended the 2013 convening. Dr. José Molinelli, professor of Environmental Science at University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, described by Acosta as “the most respected scientist professor on the island,” gave a talk in which he described what would happen to Puerto Rico with a category four or five hurricane. Acosta said, “Everything he said would come to pass, happened. Electricity would be down and would not be back for months, whole towns would be destroyed.”
El Puente Builds Its Own Relief Network
El Puente’s program in Puerto Rico is called Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, or Latino Link of Climate Action, though staff and members refer to it as El Puente. Today it has close to 100 members representing organizations across the island. For the past few months, it has been distributing Ekotek solar lamps to people without electricity. The lamp is designed for people who do not have access to the electrical grid. It has a lithium battery that charges from the sun in 10–12 hours. It can also be plugged into an electrical outlet to charge or run on batteries, though those are hard to get in catastrophic times. In addition to the light—the biggest, at 1000 lumens, is bright enough to illuminate a small house—the lamp also has a radio and a cellphone charging port for meeting basic communications needs. The lamp is targeted to people living in poor areas but has proven popular during climate catastrophes.
Ekotek Energy, the Haitian company behind the lamps, has provided them to El Puente at cost. The lamps, which were designed in Haiti and manufactured in China, are considered unique and of high quality. Haiti started using them after the 2010 earthquake. To date, El Puente has distributed 10,000 lamps through its network. According to David Ortiz, the director of El Puente’s Puerto Rico program, each shipment of 3,000 costs $130,000. Acosta and Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) secure the lamps and raise the funds to cover the costs. They partner with the Puerto Rico-based Institute for Competitiveness and Economic Sustainability to retrieve the lamps from the Puerto Rican ports (making sure they don’t get stuck there, like many other goods) and distribute them to El Puente member organizations.
Yasmin Vigil, El Puente’s coordinator, says, “People get really emotional over the lamps.” Describing a woman who came to the office to pick up a lamp, Vigil says, “She kept saying, ‘Thank God, thank God,’ all the way down the hallway on her way out.” I experienced this myself when I went out with the El Puente team to distribute lamps in a very poor neighborhood in Santurce, a district of San Juan.
Many neighborhoods like this one have not been visited by aid workers, and its residents say they feel forgotten. Many of the houses are destroyed or locked up, its former residents gone “outside,” what Puerto Ricans call the US mainland.
Witnessing the appreciation for the most basic resources over and over again takes a toll. Ortiz says, “The first day we gave out lamps, after everyone left, we just sat here in silence. We couldn’t look at each other. We were so moved.” Marta Rojas, an El Puente member and the head of the education committee, agrees, “We cried a lot.”
Ortiz describes how, like the many other nonprofits on the island who served as first responders, the ones who mobilized quickly to respond to the catastrophe, they went door to door, checking on people, tracking needs. He says, “Well, we saw what was going on and, I think, it just made us work harder.”
No Issue Stands Alone
In addition to distributing solar lamps, El Puente also distributes food. Without electricity, many people do not have refrigerators. Apparently, like many other electrical appliances, such as garage doors and air conditioners, refrigerators break down when the power to them goes on and off too frequently. I quickly learned how expensive it is to live through a catastrophe. Much property has to be replaced, and many new costs emerge, like the cost of food when one cannot store it.
Further, many Puerto Ricans cannot afford generators due to the cost of gas. Running a household generator can cost $25 a day. That’s a lot for even a middle-class family in Puerto Rico, and over 50 percent of the population is poor. The price of generators went up, too. Vigil says, “The ones that normally go for $300 or so at other times of the year were now going for more than $1,000.” Ice, which people began to buy in high quantities to cool drinks and food, went up to $5 a bag, when you could find it.
The lack of food storage in a hot, humid climate means that food goes bad quickly. The lack of air conditioning contributes to this. Ortiz says, about visiting people in their homes, “the smell in the house, that was the most difficult.”
In neighborhoods where people could afford generators, the noise was deafening, and neighbors began negotiating their use as best they could. Some agreed not to run them at night. However, agreement on this is not always easy. The smell from the generator gasoline and diesel further compounds the problem, as the accumulation of gas fumes is affecting people’s respiratory systems.
The mountains of debris brought rats and mice. Ortiz says, “You have to literally wash your hands all the time, but how can you wash your hands if you have no water?” Felicidad Vasquez, an El Puente member, shares that people who do have water are afraid to drink it because they know the system is defective. “You don’t know how it was filtered,” she says. People who can, dig wells, and hope for the best.
Over and over, I found that people wanted to talk about what happened to them and how they survived it. They often frame a story with “Before Hurricane Maria,” or “After Hurricane Maria.” But, there is a focus on what can be done now because the needs are many, widespread, and urgent. And what you do, if you are one of the lucky people who feels good enough to help others, is call up your best, generous self.
Ortiz perfectly captures what I began to see as a pattern in my visit to nonprofits in Puerto Rico, that people are giving their all to the recovery. In fact, it seems to bring out a superhuman capacity in aid workers, many of them volunteers, though I wondered the toll this may take on them eventually, as they were also personally affected by the storm. I delivered lamps with 80-year-old women (as many of the volunteers are retired persons) who moved purposefully through their tiredness, while I wilted under the heat, humidity, and hard work of providing basic supplies and services to so many people.
Building Awareness about Climate Change
According to Ortiz, in spite of the fact that Puerto Rico is “in the middle of a hurricane highway” and the many people working on climate change, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand, or even believe in, climate change. But things are beginning to change. Hurricane Maria is the second climate catastrophe Puerto Rico has faced in the last three years. In 2015, it experienced the worst drought in 100 years. Ortiz recalls, “Some of us had water every two days. We had no water. It wouldn’t rain.” (A 2015 Slate article was headlined, “Be Thankful, California. At Least You’re Not Puerto Rico.”)
Agricultural workers in Puerto Rico understand the impact of climate change. Ortiz says, “They’re seeing that their crops are growing during the wrong times of the season. In some cases, it shortens the season. The vegetables and fruits are smaller.”
The coast is also disappearing. Ortiz says,
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The erosion, it’s a big problem, but people aren’t taking it as serious. For example, if you go to the El Banario [beach] in Carolina, you’ll see it has kiosks. I remember when we used to sit down far down from the kiosks and we had to walk up to get a juice or an empanada. And now the people sit literally in front of the kiosks. I’ve only been here eight years! I’m not telling you something that takes place over a period of 50 years. The water is rising so much it’s literally swallowing the island because of the ice that’s melting. It’s making our oceans grow.
According to Ortiz, El Condado, an affluent neighborhood in San Juan, floods periodically now, even when it’s not raining. It floods when the tide comes in, which affects the sewage system. He says, “All the sewage goes into the beach. And people are swimming in the sewage and they don’t know it.”
Choosing between Continued Vulnerability and Sustainability
In addition to leading efforts to adjust to and mitigate climate changes, El Puente is at the forefront of the campaign to stop the development of a gas infrastructure and pursue renewable energy. It is one of only a few nonprofit organizations participating in the Energy Commission’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which, according to its website, is a plan for efficiently, reliably, and transparently satisfying the energy demand in Puerto Rico over the next 20 years.
Seventy-five percent of the energy in Puerto Rico is consumed in the metro area around San Juan, north of the mountain range that cuts across the island east to west, and 75 percent is generated in the southern part of the island, so much of the energy has to travel across the mountains. The current system does that via poles, and many, if not most, of these have been destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
The energy plan under consideration proposes to transform the electrical grid from mostly oil-based generation to primarily gas. This would require the building of a new underground pipeline infrastructure for gas distribution. Ortiz says, “Do you know how many mountains they’re going to have to destroy and all the towns that are going to be at risk if a leak happens?”
According to Ruth Santiago, an El Puente member and a leading lawyer on energy on the island, Puerto Rico’s electrical system is based on a very old model that served its purpose at the time, when Puerto Rico didn’t have alternatives. She notes,
PREPA was actually a trailblazer in bringing together the creation of an electrical grid in really rough terrain. For example, PREPA has been recognized as a leader in the placing of electrical poles and transmission poles and cables in mountainous areas using helicopters. Supposedly, they were the first to ever do that. So, at the time, in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and when they finally electrified the whole island in the ’70s, it was quite a feat, because Puerto Rico is a volcanic island. It’s rough terrain, dense tropical forests, lots of vegetation. Vegetation and transmission lines don’t go together well. They tend to work against each other.
So, that system did manage to electrify the whole country and all the remote communities, but now, as we see, Hurricane Maria has transformed the whole situation. We now have a totally different scenario where there are alternatives to the current system of fossil fuel generation and big central stations in southern Puerto Rico transmitting energy through the central mountain range to the northern metro area.
According to Santiago, every government administration in Puerto Rico pays “lots of lip service to renewables and talk about first doing a brief transition with natural gas.”
The current proposed gas project is known as the Aguirre Offshore GasPort (the Aguirre power complex in Salinas is the biggest generator in Puerto Rico). Santiago explains that using natural gas in an island jurisdiction like Puerto Rico is “very tricky.” In order to import gas, the natural gas has to be liquefied for transport because the volumes are too big in the gaseous state. This process requires significant energy input and produces pollutive emissions. Then, once it reached the gas port in Puerto Rico, the liquefied gas has to be regasified, which further consumes energy and creates emissions. And, “it would probably come from the US, so first it would be fracked gas, with all the methane emissions related to fracking.” That’s a lot of energy input and pollution to create energy, especially when other alternatives are less environmentally and financially costly.
Proponents of renewable energy, like El Puente, are concerned that the gas project is not really a transition project. Santiago says, “What we have found, and our advisors from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis have confirmed, is that the project is so expensive that it’s going to use all available resources and there won’t be any funds left for renewable energy projects.”
PREPA estimates that the gas project will cost between $480 and $521 million for the construction of the offshore gas port and the pipelines. But, Santiago notes, that does not take into account the liquefied natural gas carrier and the operation of the offshore gas port, which is estimated to cost at least $80 million per year. She says, “If you add all those numbers up, just for the original 15-year term, you’re into well over a billion dollars for the project.”
Santiago predicts this will lead to rate increases for Puerto Rican consumers. Further, she points out that Aurelio Mercado, an oceanography professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, has noted that the offshore gas port is not designed to take into consideration storms like Hurricane Maria and what they do in terms of wave action. It does not consider sea level rise, either. It is not the ideal energy solution for an island at the forefront of climate change.
According to Cathy Kunkel, a leading energy analyst at IEEFA, the Puerto Rico legislature passed a renewable energy law in 2015 calling for 12 percent of Puerto Rico’s energy to come from renewable sources. PREPA’s current two-percent rate puts it significantly out of compliance. Kunkel says this is in part due to a history of mismanagement of the contracting process for renewable energy, where Puerto Rico ends up paying above market rates to US and Puerto Rican energy companies, which makes renewable energy look more expensive that it should be if you compared it to the prices for renewables in Hawaii. She tells NPQ,
In general, PREPA has been hostile to renewable energy, even though it’s cost effective. I think the utility in Puerto Rico has suffered from a very politicized upper management. PREPA is one of the biggest public entities and has money blowing through it and a lot of opportunities for contracts. It hasn’t been at all transparent, so it’s kind of a recipe for corruption. My suspicion is that it’s politically all tied up in oil and gas. They’re spending over a billion a year on fuel. That’s a lot of money that the oil industry doesn’t want to lose. There’s a lot of political pressure to keep ties to the fossil industry.
But Santiago is hopeful about the progress she is seeing before the Energy Commission. She concludes,
El Puente has been successful, thus far, in keeping that project in abeyance. The Energy Commission has not approved it. They do not have the planning board permit. The Energy Commission is looking now, especially after Hurricane Maria, at other options, especially since the kilowatt-hour cost of renewables has gone down and now easily competes with all fossil fuels.
So now that we know that there are alternatives, it takes political will. It takes community, grassroots movement, to move that will. It takes funding. It takes capacity building and changing mentalities about what is possible. It takes technical skill and financial arrangements that are different than the usual power purchase agreements, and empowering communities to set up solar projects on their rooftops and do energy exchanges on a community basis. So, it’s quite a feat. It will take lots of different kinds of efforts to accomplish, but I think we’re on our way.
In fact, in 2008, faculty at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, the engineering campus, led by Professor Efrain O’Neill-Carrillo, created a stakeholder group and started a dialogue about the vision and mission for a renewable energy system in Puerto Rico, including reports on the mechanics of transforming the energy grid to renewable energy. This doesn’t have to be imagined; a plan already exists.
There are many companies selling solar panels in Puerto Rico now, but customers have to be careful about the contracts they sign. Ortiz says, “There are people who have contracts that say that if they don’t pay in a certain manner, the company can take their house.” The same is happening at the government level. Santiago says, “We have lots of bidders here. Everyone is throwing their hat in the ring to get their project approved, which is something to be careful about, too.”
The Power of a Working Network, but Philanthropic Fuel Is Badly Needed to Get to Scale
El Puente does all of this and more with a $75,000 grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation. Puerto Rican nonprofits have a hard time raising funds, as they generally do not receive grants from US mainland foundations, which don’t consider them domestic, or from international aid funders, who consider them part of the US. Ortiz says, “We’re always in the red.”
Acosta is hopeful. He says, “If there’s any good that has come out of Irma and Maria it is the fact that funders now understand that people who live on the island of Puerto Rico are just as much citizens as the people who live in Brooklyn. Everyone is clear that Puerto Ricans citizens are US citizens. So those foundations that only fund domestically can fund us. It’s going to take a lot of support.”