By George Harvey
I last posted on the Green Energy Times website about the work Joseph Mangum was doing in Puerto Rico in “Joseph’s First Two Days in Puerto Rico.” It appeared on October 31, with news of his work in Puerto Rick, helping restore the island, shortly after he arrived in San Juan. 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.
At the time that article was posted, we knew he would probably be out of touch with us for some time. There was no electricity for most of the island, no internet access, and phone service. And he was going into the island’s interior, where things were hardest hit.
It was over a week before I started getting news I could write about. 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 a little later. They were short, because he could not spend much time working at a computer, but they had more information. Joseph has installed all five systems, though not exactly as planned. He has also distributed food, water purification systems, and seeds.
He started San Juan area, in a place called San José. The first of the 1-kilowatt (kW) systems was installed in a bicycle shop. The system powers tools, and local people can gather there and get hit by a breeze from a fan as they charge their cell phones.
After that, Joseph and Mark went to Juncos. It is south of San Juan and well inland. The coastal communities have had a lot more attention from the federal government than those in the interior, and while power outages are a reality in San Juan, the situation Juncos is much worse. They 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 lives near one of Joseph’s relatives. As at the other systems that are being 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. Among other things, it powers a fan that provides a little comfort in the heat to people who are very vulnerable. Joseph said, “George, you have no idea how brutal this heat can be.” A little energy can also 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 the other shelters 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. Clearly, they naturally got some priority simply because of timing; hurricanes hit them before Maria hit Puerto Rico. But on the mainland, we often forget that 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 them and admired the ones I knew as decent, hard-working, and honest people. They do not deserve to be neglected. Now the Army has been ordered 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. One system was installed in Ciales, at a mushroom farm that needed electricity. The mushrooms can provide food for local people. Joseph said of the people at the farm, “What a lovely crew!”
In Utuado, he installed a solar system needed to supply minimum power requirements for a greenhouse that grows food. Once again, this shows the importance of small systems. The 1-kW system Joseph installed enables growing a large amount of food in a place where there is 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. One of the things Joseph said was, “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, because it is a federal offense to touch them. They have to sit and wait, day after day, for help that does not come, to see the roads unblocked. 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.
He said, “Those with means are okay. 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.”
Electric power, water, and food are only part of the problem. “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.
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. While it gets some benefits, it also has some real disadvantages. One, 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.
Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, import duties have to be paid on goods from the United States. And 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.
Failures of privatization are clearly getting in the way. One example is the road system. It was privatized, I am told, and now all the roads are toll roads. In theory, the upkeep of the roads is to be done by the people who own the roads 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 is clear: When the roads are too bad to repair without major repairs costing a lot of money, the owners can declare the business bankrupt and walk away without personal losses. And the storm has made a bad road system into a barely passable nightmare, at best.
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. The result of this is that many people have been working without pay under circumstances that are hard to escape.
When Maria hit, these people’s houses were destroyed, because they were of very cheap construction. Their crops, tools, and supplies were destroyed by the storm. Any cars they had access to are gone. The stores where they had credits are gone. 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 by letting them down the way it does.
Joseph’s crowdfunding campaign is still going on, and any donations will fund things needed in Puerto Rico. It can be visited at www.gofundme.com/solargens4pr.