Puerto Rico

Their neighbors fled, but these Puerto Ricans see a future on the island

Hurricane Maria left a path of death and destruction in Puerto Rico. At least 64 people died because of the storm, according to official statistics, though independent investigations suggest that number could be as high as 1,000. It also initiated a new exodus of Puerto Ricans to the United States. With a U.S. passport in hand, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans showed up to airports and ports around the island with the intention of leaving, uncertain how long they’d be gone. Would it be temporary or permanent? Only time would tell. But many of those who stayed did so to help the country get back on its feet. These are some of their stories.

By Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda

For one man in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria was a blessing. At 70, and with more than four decades of environmental stewardship behind him, civil engineer Alexis Massol believes that Maria will convince Puerto Ricans to leave behind petroleum, gas and coal, and transition to an energy source that’s cheap, environmentally-friendly and available to all: the sun.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m happy with Maria, because Maria is teaching this country and these governments that things can’t go on like this,” he says. Massol, who has white hair and a permanent smile, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002, the equivalent of the Nobel for environmental issues. “Here, in Puerto Rico, we’re going to talk about a ‘before Maria’ and an ‘after Maria,’” he says.

This big thinker has a plan to power Puerto Rico with the sun

Hurricane season in Puerto Rico uncovered the gaps of an expensive electrical system. On the island, people pay more for electricity than in any other state in the continental U.S. The system suffered from a profound lack of maintenance and upkeep, in part because of the island’s enormous debt. On September 6, as Irma passed about 30 miles north of Puerto Rico, more than a million people woke up without lights.

Two weeks later, on September 20, Maria swept across Puerto Rico and completely destroyed the electrical grid. Some had enjoyed a day or two of electricity between the two hurricanes, but others have been in the dark since Irma.

But the lights never went out for Massol, thanks to a solar energy system that has provided electricity to his community development project, Casa Pueblo, for years. The project is located in Adjuntas, a municipality located in the mountainous zone at the center of the island. And now he wants to share the secret with the rest of the country.

As Maria rumbled across Puerto Rico, the founder of Casa Pueblo was transmitting live from his community radio station, keeping people informed of developments. Later, he coordinated recovery efforts for those directly affected. “The people kept us up-to-date about what was going on and they moved from one place to another with machetes and chainsaws,” he says. “Radio managed to activate the community while the government was paralyzed.”

After the storm, neighbors began to show up at Casa Pueblo to recharge their phones or get medical treatments that required electricity – there was even a barber who started working at the site. That’s where the idea was born to light up the 18,000 person municipality with solar power. And Puerto Ricans living abroad have played a fundamental role in making that a reality.

Casa Pueblo put out a call to the diaspora. They asked anyone who wanted to help Puerto Rico to send solar light bulbs, which cost about $10 each, and which can be recharged with a small solar panel, providing up to eight hours of light.

The enormous wave of solidarity among Puerto Ricans abroad was strong, and as of mid-December, almost 9,000 residents of Adjuntas have received solar light bulbs. The government still hadn’t re-established the electrical system in the municipality by mid-December. Casa Pueblo intends to take advantage of the opportunity by educating citizens about solar power and presenting it as a solution for the island.

“It’s an alternative that we’re seeking for the future of this country,” Massol explains.

At the community center, a worker hands Massol one of the last remaining light bulbs. He unwraps it with care. “This is beautiful,” he says, showing it off. “It’s as simple as it is educational, and people can understand what solar power is. They’ve been learning and they’re saying, ‘We want this photovoltaic system,’” he says.

The lightbulb finds an owner in no time: a man who says he’s come from Culebra, an island municipality more than 90 miles from Adjuntas that’s reached via an 1.5 hour trip by boat and more than two hours by car. The man explains that he saw Alexis Massol’s son talking about the project on TV and decided to come look for one of the bulbs.

Casa Pueblo is a family affair: Alexis is in charge of managing the distribution of light bulbs in Adjuntas and doing work in the community, and his son, university professor Arturo Massol-Dejá, is also a member of the organization’s board of directors. He mobilizes the network of contacts he has abroad, assuring that the donations sent to Puerto Rico are distributed accordingly.

While workers from the U.S. continue to fix the electrical system in Puerto Rico under controversial multimillion-dollar contracts, Casa Pueblo has proposed that 50% of the island convert to solar power, via a campaign called 50conSOL (“50 with sun”), The model would generate savings and employment for the island.

The idea is to use Maria as a point of departure, leaving behind the “obsolete system of energy production,” explains Massol-Dejá from the Isla Grande Airport in San Juan, where he waits for a shipment of lightbulbs to arrive on a humanitarian flight originating in Houston, Texas.

The Massols base their proposal for the transition to solar energy on a University of Puerto Rico study that concluded that the island could sustain itself with solar energy if between 60-65% of the roofs in Puerto Rico were outfitted with solar panels.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo, has no doubt that Puerto Rico has enough sun to meet the challenge. Given the fact that Maria left the electrical infrastructure in tatters, he believes this is the moment to begin an “energy revolution.” Nevertheless, he cautions that the mission has technical, economic and—above all—social challenges.

In Puerto Rico, just 2.4% of the island’s electricity now comes from renewable resources, primarily wind and solar, according to a report produced by the Energy Information Administration in June of this year.

Casa Pueblo isn’t the only entity that intends to light the island with solar power. After the hurricane, a number of people called for a long-term, sustainable solution. Tesla founder Elon Musk offered help to the government of Puerto Rico redefine its energy landscape.

Musk said that his team had already done this with smaller islands, but that he saw no “scalability limit” with Puerto Rico. To date, his company has sent materials to light a number of buildings, including a hospital and a sewage plant on the island of Culebra.

The Tesla founder’s message was well-received by Governor Ricardo Roselló, who recently said before a Senate committee that he’d like to see Puerto Rico’s electrical system be 25% renewable.

For the moment, it’s private initiatives like Casa Pueblo that stand out. Another, Resilient Power Puerto Rico (Energía Resiliente Puerto Rico), has proposed to set up solar-powered illumination centers in 100 places around the island within 100 days.

These initiatives make Alexis Massol feel that his dream is being realized. Despite the suffering that Maria brought to millions of Puerto Ricans, he believes that the island is at a moment of change in which local communities have a more robust role to play.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “We’re ready for a new society, and this hurricane has helped us understand that better. There’s no better moment than the one Maria has given us.”

While Trump threw paper towels to those who were affected by Maria, these students are reviving their university with their own hands

A week-and-a-half after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, while universities in a number of U.S. states offered to take in Puerto Rican students affected by the storm, hundreds of students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) arrived at the Río Piedras campus to begin to rebuild.

Equipped with shovels, rakes, saws, machetes, and brooms, students of literature, political science and law cut trees, picked up debris and recovered books from flooded classrooms.

360 video
Students clean up the University of Puerto Rico

Resilience post-Maria

Roberto Atienza has had coffee in his veins for as long as he can remember. He often has some before bed “to calm down.” This 67-year-old, with tanned skin, white hair and mustache, is the third generation of coffee growers in the mountains of Jayuya, in the center of Puerto Rico. After Maria, he’s only thinking about replanting and moving forward.

“For me, coffee is my life. It’s what motivates me to keep going,” says Atienza, who estimates that the Category 4 hurricane damaged 75% of his farm, Hacienda San Pedro, where he also grows plantains, papayas and citrus fruits.

This Puerto Rican coffee producer keeps going despite a blow from María

On the night the hurricane hit, the wooden roof of his house began to fall off, and he spent hours trying to protect his belongings. When he woke up, he found his plantation devastated. “No matter what direction one looked, there was nothing. There were no coffee plants, no plantains. There were no shade trees. Before, there were many mountain palms that are typical of the area – there wasn’t a single leaf,” he explains.

Many in Puerto Rico felt the same. The island’s green had turned brown. Maria’s winds carried away the leaves of many trees and knocked others down completely. Many in the mountains could see their neighbor’s houses for the first time. And the island’s agriculture sector registered a number of losses. The torrential rains caused mudslides that destroyed entire plantations, farms and farming infrastructure.

Secretary of Agriculture Carlos Flores estimated that farming losses caused by the hurricane totaled more than $2 million. While Irma caused $45 million in damage, Maria caused $200 million in harvest losses, and more than $1.8 million in infrastructure.

It’s a hard blow for local producers, who had enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, despite the profound debt crisis. In Puerto Rico, only 15% of consumed foodstuffs are produced in country. But in an effort to break their dependence upon imports, some Puerto Ricans had decided, in recent years, to return to the land.

This year, Roberto Atienza was expecting a good harvest of up to 8 million pounds of coffee, following four bad seasons. But Maria dashed his dreams. Now, he says he doesn’t think he’ll harvest more than a million pounds, which won’t be enough to satisfy his international clients.

The little he’ll produce is earmarked for cafes and local businesses that have agreements with his company. “The decline will be substantial and not just for us, but for the town’s economy, because many people depend upon the coffee industry,” he explains.

On his farm, a good harvest can require some 100 workers. But this year, he doesn’t expect he’ll need more than 30 people to pick the remaining coffee.

Farmers arrived at Hacienda San Pedro just a week after Maria. To get there, they had to clear roadways obstructed by tree trunks, rocks, and mud. That’s when Atienza began to see the positive things wrought by the hurricane. He says he’d never seen his neighbors so willing to help each other as in that moment.

With the road open, dozens of workers showed up to try to rescue what was left after the storm. Some had experienced the loss of their own homes; others hadn’t been able to communicate with their families who lived in the U.S., but all of them said that they were happy to have work.

“The country is devastated but, thank God (Maria) left something for us to keep working on,” said Cosme Cortez, one of the harvesters, a 63-year-old who has dedicated his life to coffee since he was 10 years old, when he left school to go work in the fields.

Higher up mountain, on a steep slope, a group of workers joke when the sky darkens and raindrops start to fall. “Maria’s coming back!” one yells. Without missing a beat, everyone lets out a hearty laugh.

The farmers know that, despite the losses caused by the hurricane, the mountain will recover and the trees and plants will grow again. “The land always provides work. If there’s no coffee, you have to clean the land, plant it, pick it, treat it well,” explains Joel Antonio Rivera, another harvester from Hacienda San Pedro, who has spent 17 of his 32 years dedicated to coffee.

Atienza estimates that it will take 10 years for his farm to return to production levels enjoyed pre-Maria. That’s what it took to recover from Hurricane Georges in 1998, which also devastated his farm. The storm has also taught him lessons.

“Even though one might not want to, we have to keep going. With whatever’s left, we have to start over and try to overcome this,” he says.

He intends to continue the legacy of his grandfather, who came from Spain at the age of 13 and began to work on a coffee plantation, ending up with his own farm. He says he hopes his grandchildren will be able to work the fields one day.

A special report by Lorena Arroyo, Nacho Corbella & Esther Poveda
All Credits

Project: Univision Noticias

Texts: Lorena Arroyo, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez (Cuba)

Video: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Almudena Toral, Andrea Patiño, Laura Prieto, José Luis Osuna, Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons, Ricardo Weibezahn

Design and dev: Juanje Gómez

Project coordination: Nathalie Alvaray, Selymar Colón, José López

Photo: Nacho Corbella, Esther Poveda, Lorena Arroyo

Text editing: María Sánchez Díez

Data: Ronny Rojas, Dilia Márquez, Antonio Cucho

Social networks: María Carolina Hurtado, Esther Poveda, Nacho Corbella, Ricardo Weibezahn

Digital product: Daniela Jaramillo

Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo, Melvin Félix

English texts editing: David Adams, Jessica Weiss, Mónica Isola

Additional thanks: Maye Primera, Inger Díaz, Alejandra Vargas, Patricia Clarembaux, Patricia Vélez, Carmen Graciela Díaz, Luis Velarde, David Maris, Angélica Gallón