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Solar Companies and Non-Profits are Filling the Void in the Long Road to Recovery in Puerto Rico

As Puerto Rico struggles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, organizations are leading the charge in helping restore power and delivering clean water.

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Oct 18 2017, 4:15pm

Image via Empowered by Light Facebook

Raw sewage has been flowing into the rivers and reservoirs of Puerto Rico as a consequence of Hurricane María, rivers that residents with no access to water have been bathing and washing their clothes in. And with one out of three residents lacking access to running water, and 20 of the 51 sewage treatment plants in Puerto Rico out of service, concerns of contamination and infectious disease are mounting.

Nearly a month on after the Category 4 Hurricane María made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, the scale of the human and environmental tragedy, and scope of what is needed to help repair the damage is becoming increasingly clear — it is immense.

And while Congress passed an additional $36.5 billion in disaster relief (with 69 Republicans voting against it) last week, many are saying, Congress is not doing enough to support their fellow Americans.

While it remains unknown how much the ravaged island will need to rebuild, Moody's Analytics, a financial services firm, has estimated the storm could cost the island between $45 billion to $95 billion to repair. However, the additional funds suggested to be put forward by Congress are to be divided up among Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas and the Gulf Coast, to Hurricane Irma victims in Florida, and wildfire victims in California, which would leave Hurricane María victims in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with very little to rebuild.

Nearly a month on after the Category 4 Hurricane María made direct landfall on Puerto Rico, the scale of the human and environmental tragedy, and scope of what is needed to help repair the damage is becoming increasingly clear — it is immense.

"The current bill is the first step, but more is required. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has recently called for a Marshall Plan-style recovery effort for Puerto Rico, which is the right approach to ensure Puerto Rico not only stabilizes but comes back stronger than before," Frankie A. Martinez-Blanco, a Puerto Rican political organizer and former Obama administration alum based in Brooklyn, told VICE Impact.

Following a bipartisan trip to Puerto Rico, Gillibrand called on Congress to develop a blueprint for rebuilding the island devastated by the hurricanes. The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, was a multi-billion dollar aid package that supported the reconstruction of Europe between 1948 and 1951, following the Second World War. With 80 percent of the island's electric grid not functioning, and 100 percent of Puerto Ricans either lacking running water, or clean running water, and businesses and homes destroyed, Gillibrand suggestions has been welcomed by Puerto Ricans.


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"Given Puerto Rico's lack of congressional representation and ability to vote for President, the island lives at the mercy of a Washington that knows its actions will bear little consequence on the outcomes of future elections. We are seeing the consequences of this in the Trump administration's lackluster recovery effort and Congress' paltry relief appropriations bill that recently passed the House of Representatives," Martinez-Blanco explained.

And with a large aid package likely to take time, and one out of two hospitals still without electricity, several groups and companies have already stepped in launched sustainable energy initiatives to aid the island's recovery, but also its long-term resilience.

The nonprofit Empowered By Light in partnership with Sunrun—the nation's largest residential solar company—has partnered with local leaders to deliver and install solar micro-grids, water desalination and purification systems, and water production systems, and already installed a 4kW solar array with battery storage at the Barrio Obrero fire station in San Juan, and a second system at another fire station on Friday.

"It appears the federal emergency response is focused on diesel to repower the island. We wanted to demonstrate with real projects—with immediate impact, that renewable energy technology is available now and it's a much more resilient alternative to diesel," Marco Krapels, co-founder of Empowered By Light, who led the effort said. For these initiatives, restoring electricity is a high priority, but making the grid more resilient to withstand major storms, critical too.

With a large aid package likely to take time, and one out of two hospitals still without electricity, several groups and companies have already stepped in launched sustainable energy initiatives to aid the island's recovery.

Billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also joined in conversations about overhauling Puerto Rico's energy system, which previous to the hurricane relied on power plants that were on average 44 years old and relied on outdated oil-fired systems, and since the hurricane, fuel generators.

"The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too," Musk tweeted, adding that the decision to transition the island to a sustainable energy "would be in the hands of" local government. "Let's talk," Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló responded on Twitter, later posting an update that his and Musk's "teams are now talking; exploring opportunities."

In recent days, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a national solar industry group, has also sent aid to the island, as has Light Up Puerto Rico, a group, led by two Puerto Ricans based now in Ohio, that formed after the hurricane. And they are not the only Puerto Ricans on the mainland mobilizing.

"What they [Congress] don't realize is that in the past 10 years over half a million Puerto Ricans have moved to states like Texas, Florida, and Ohio, with thousands more moving to the mainland post-Hurricane María. And given that they are U.S. citizens, they can instantly become voters in those states," Martinez-Blanco said. "Two of the silver linings of Hurricane María have been the media attention focused on Puerto Rico and the awakening and activation of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Those of us on the mainland who have families suffering in Puerto Rico, won't soon forget who was there to help us in our hour of need, come election season."

Formed to help assist and empower Puerto Ricans living in the United States to create sustained, long-term advocacy efforts in their community and give them the tools to make sure lawmakers do not forget about Puerto Rico, is BoricuActívatEd.

"As a Puerto Rican who worked in Congress for 25 years, it was obvious that Puerto Rico didn't always have the political power it needed in Washington. Since federal aid is the only way to rebuild Puerto Rico, the moment Hurricane María hit I knew that our Island's lack of influence on Capitol Hill was going to be a huge hurdle for our recovery. We're not going to get the aid and help we need unless we fight for it together, so I started BoricuActivatEd with some friends and former colleagues to fill that gap," Jennice Fuentes, founder of BoricuActívatEd told VICE Impact.

READ MORE: Weeks After Hurricane Maria Hit, and Puerto Rico's Recovery Efforts Still Need Your Help

The group will be delivering tips and training both online and in person, to help Puerto Ricans and allies campaign and advocate for support. "We expect this to lead to calls to congressional members, petitions, rallies, strategic partnerships — all of that — but more importantly, we want to couple those tactics with experience. Our team knows how Washington works and we want to put that knowledge into advocates' hands so the right levers and pressure points can be utilized to help Puerto Rico recover," Fuentes added.

"Since federal aid is the only way to rebuild Puerto Rico, the moment Hurricane María hit I knew that our Island's lack of influence on Capitol Hill was going to be a huge hurdle for our recovery."

And while Puerto Ricans in the U.S. are standing up for those on the islands, it's not enough. "The diaspora can only do so much. In this fight, we need as many allies as possible for the long-term recovery effort of the island," Martinez-Blanco emphasized.

To stand up with Puerto Ricans, write to and call your Congress members to let them know that the current humanitarian crisis should be dealt expediently and with the resources afforded to all other U.S. citizens.

Hurricane María recovery efforts are still very much underway . Find out how you can support them.

BoricuActívatEd is looking for volunteers, they especially need videographers, designers, and developers. Email them to help out and get involved.