It’s been more than seven weeks since Hurricane Maria devoured Puerto Rico in 155-mile-per-hour winds, and more than half of the people are still without electricity. Around 12 percent are without running water. Now, two separate groups have stepped in to install solar powered systems that provide both. Each recently went online at a Boys & Girls Club on the island’s hard-hit north side and are offering glimpses at the possibility for a future with sustainable solutions.
First stop: Bayamón, a town of about 205,000 people located 12 miles southwest of San Juan. Like the rest of Puerto Rico, Bayamón was hit first by Hurricane Irma on September 6, and then again by Hurricane Maria on September 20.
“With Irma, it was a normal power outage,” said Olga Ramos, President of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico. In two or three days the electricity was restored, she said. “Irma gave us a rehearsal. When Maria came along, it was a totally different story.”
The community lost all power and it hasn’t come back on since. In the days following, the staff at the Boys & Girls Club in Bayamón went into action, establishing the club as a distribution center for dry food, clothing, diapers, wipes, medicine, soap and other supplies, said Ramos. Not long after, the San Juan-based nonprofit ConPRmetidos offered to fund a solar-powered energy and water filtration system designed by a Delaware-based company called Off Grid Box. In October, the box was brought to Bayamón.
“This Club has a focus on innovation and sustainability, and the kids had a chance to participate during the installation so they got to understand the impact of this technology,” said Ramos.
The system is an all-in-one solution that arrives in a six-foot-square shipping container. The solar panels are affixed to the top, and the water filtration system is set up inside. Once it’s assembled by someone from the company, the box uses sunlight to power a pump and filtration system that can purify 300 gallons of water per hour. About 80 kids per day have been showing up at the facility for programs, food, and clean water. Romas said that under normal circumstances, the club sees about 200 kids per day.
Although the Off Grid Box was installed for disaster relief in Bayamón, the company, co-founded in 2014 by Emiliano Cecchini and Davide Bonsignore, was launched to provide aid to the thousands of impoverished communities around the world that lack clean water and rely on gasoline-powered generators for electricity. So far, nearly 30 boxes have been set up in a few different countries, including South Africa, Rwanda, Nigeria, Philippines, and Madagascar.
About 17 miles east of San Juan is Loiza, a coastal town with approximately 30,000 people. Of them, 46 percent live below the poverty line. Their lives were made more challenging by Irma and then Maria, which stripped and flattened trees, obliterated wooden homes, ripped off rooftops, and toppled and tangled electricity lines. A storm surge flooded buildings, overwhelmed the sewer system and forced raw sewage into homes, streets and nearby rivers. The town still has no electricity or working water supply.
“People were desperate for water and they were just drinking anything they could find locally,” said Alex Hatoum, managing director of Infinitum Humanitarian Systems, a for-profit disaster response organization based in Seattle, Wash.
Hatoum and the company’s CEO, Eric Rasmussen, a retired Naval medical doctor, collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Labs and the Roddenberry Foundation (of Gene Roddenberry, who created the original Star Trek series in 1966) to develop Water Aid and Renewable Power, or WARP. It uses solar power to run a submersible pump and a purification system to produce between 850 gallons and 1000 gallons of clean water daily.
On October 22, a WARP system was up and running in Boys & Girls Club of Loiza. Flexible solar panels were rolled out onto the roof to power a filtration system that was permanently installed in the building. It gets water from a rain harvesting system, and can also tap into the building’s own plumbing to provide water for the 50 or 60 kids that have been there each day since the hurricane hit. A USB hub gives people a place to charge their cell phones.
For these communities, each system offers immediate assistance, but the technology is also a step toward a cleaner future. “This disaster has put the sustainability topic at the top of the list,” said Ramos.
She has been talking with both groups about additional systems, and hopes they can raise money to install one at each of the remaining 11 Boys & Girls Clubs on the island. If another hurricane strikes, the solar-powered setups won’t be knocked out for months at a time. They would be back online in hours, providing energy and safe drinking water to anyone in need.
While these projects remain a small drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to bring Puerto Rico back up to speed, they come at a critical juncture in the island’s development. Forward-thinking efforts are taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild Puerto Rico’s grid in a more sustainable fashion.
Tracy Staedter is a science writer and editor covering energy, the environment, urban resilience and the future of food. Follow at @tracy_staedter