MAYAGÜEZ, Puerto Rico—On a warm November evening in an echo-filled community center, about 20 residents of Mayagüez’s El Seco sector discussed strategies for garbage disposal. The seaside Puerto Rican community always had issues with municipal trash pickup due to its narrow streets, and Hurricane Maria had made things worse. Debris from the hurricane still needed to be collected, and trash pickup services remained inconsistent. The accumulation of garbage and animal feces was becoming a health hazard.
Tired of waiting for FEMA, federal support, and the local government, residents of El Seco had united to search for solutions themselves. During these weekly Monday meetings, residents voiced concerns and shared updates. A frequent topic of discussion was the power: El Seco still lacked electricity, posing a deadly threat to its aging residents, many of whom are diabetic and cannot refrigerate their insulin.
Braulio A. Quintero Nazario, co-founder of the Institute for Socio-Ecological Research (ISER Caribe), joined the meeting, and the conversation shifted to the possibility of starting a community garden. Quintero explained how ISER Caribe could help the community develop a garden by providing supplies, including seeds and shovels.
While Puerto Rico might seem small on a map, Hurricane Maria has laid bare the island’s social, geographical, and economic disparities. After Maria struck, the distribution of relief supplies incurred delays due to logistical and bureaucratic issues. Lacking assistance from official channels, Puerto Ricans, like Quintero and his colleagues, have begun to initiate their own relief and recovery efforts.
“During the first days we were in a state of shock,” Quintero told Earther, speaking for himself and ISER Caribe co-founder Stacey Williams. “We felt...a lot of uncertainty of what the future was going to be like.”
ISER Caribe is a small Puerto Rican nonprofit focused on community-driven stewardship of natural resources. It was conceived by Quintero, Williams, and Ryan Mann-Hamilton in 2012. The organization runs a variety coastal conservation efforts in the Caribbean, and has received funding from NOAA, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture. Its role quickly evolved after Hurricane Maria.
“We haven’t stopped working on our other projects…but, ever since Maria, the mission has turned into one of promoting sustainability, capacity building, and promoting system resiliency, which are things we didn’t do before,” Quintero said. “We didn’t talk about water and how to harvest it, we didn’t talk about solar energy and how to integrate it into homes and businesses.”
In these first months post-Maria, ISER Caribe has concentrated on distributing water filters, construction materials, and tarps, and on conducting workshops. (Disclosure: the author of this post donated 102 water filters and two tarps to ISER Caribe, from funds independently collected with friends and colleagues.) ISER Caribe is now gearing up for the second phase in the recovery process: helping build sustainable and self-sufficient communities.
Future initiatives include providing electricity to rural communities in the central part of the island using solar energy, and mass producing the “WATTA Boricua,” a communal water filtration system developed by ISER Caribe using local materials. The organization is in preliminary talks with engineering professors at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez to make these projects a reality.
Collaboration has been vital to grassroots relief efforts. ISER Caribe also works closely with the Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, a volunteer coalition composed of concerned citizens mostly from the western part of the island that banded together days prior to the hurricane.
“We’ve been working since day zero,” Carlos Bosques, a musician and brigade member, told Earther.
The Brigada Solidaria del Oeste works both as a distribution arm and a supply center, delivering food, first aid supplies, water filtration systems, and seeds for farming, in addition to cooking hot meals, and installing tarps. A local performance arts group, Vueltabajo Colectivo, has allowed the brigade to use the entire lower floor of its two-story building in the heart of Mayagüez as an improvised warehouse and sorting facility.
Immediately after the hurricane, the Brigada announced its services and received requests for help via Mayagüez’s only working communication system, the local AM radio station WKJB. Communities now reach out via word of mouth, through community or religious leaders that travel to their weekly Friday meetings, or via Facebook.
“We are doing this not through a lens of asistencialismo [charity work], but through a lens of community autogestión [self management] and collective empowerment,” Raquela Delgado Valentín, a social worker and fellow member of the Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, told Earther.
So far, the brigade has helped communities all across Puerto Rico, even sending water to the eastside island of Vieques.
Bosques mentioned that he was proud of the initiative Borikén Florece, a project developed between the Brigada and Vueltabajo Colectivo, where they brought humanitarian supplies, along with arts workshops and performances to different communities, many located in places that have yet to resume fully-operational school services.
Bosques and Delgado discussed how autogestionado groups across the island are working alongside communities to identify and meet pressing needs as federal response fails those affected by the humanitarian crisis.
When I joked that they were a type of FEMA, Delgado let out a bitter laugh, “We’re not FEMA because we’re real.”
Delgado has reason to be cynical about federal aid. It’s now 78 days after Hurricane Maria struck the island, and while government sources report that water services have now been restored by 92 percent and power generation by 68 percent, it remains unclear how much of that electric power is reaching residences. Outages remain common.
Complicating the recovery process is the Jones Act, a 1920s policy that limits foreign competition in shipping by requiring that goods traveling within the United States be transported in watercrafts owned, operated, and built by Americans. While the Trump administration suspended the Act for ten days in September, assistance arriving in foreign vessels or with international crews outside that timeframe has been obstructed.
Another imminent threat is the recent tax reform legislation. In the House and Senate versions of the law, Puerto Rico is considered a foreign jurisdiction. The profit of American companies operating in Puerto Rico will be subjected to a new 10 percent minimum tax, and Puerto Rican goods destined for the United States’ mainland will be charged a 20 percent excise tax. According to NBC News, the island could lose as many as 250,000 jobs.
Asked what Puerto Rico needs right now, Delgado looked at the Puerto Rican flag hoisted in the back of the warehouse. “Decolonization,” she said. “When a country can make its own decisions and own its destiny, it can create transformative processes. As long as we are a U.S. colony, we will be subject to the mercy and will of another country.”
Coral Salomón is a Puerto Rican librarian and archivist.