Science to Live By: Empowering Puerto Rico

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Early in the morning of September 13, 1928, Mama Pepa held tight to her son Luis Angel Morales. Are we going to make it through this alive? Looking up from his mother’s arms as they sat together on the bed, Luis watched the eight sheets of their metal roof peel away like tissue paper in the howling wind. Mother and child now were exposed to the full fury of the hurricane’s torrential rain.

Huddled together against the violent gales, they left their one-room home. Venturing out across a banana plantation, they found shelter in a neighbor’s home. Terribly, this home, too, succumbed to the brutal winds and was completely flattened. Not unlike the story of the Three Little Pigs after the big bad wolf had blown down the house of straw and then the house of wood, they all fled together in terror to the safety of a wealthy neighbor’s home–built like the Rock of Gibraltar–half a mile away.

Luis Morales—my venerable father-in-law—recently relayed to me this eyewitness account of San Felipe Segundo, the strongest hurricane ever to strike Puerto Rico, as I asked him to reminisce about his childhood.

(Speaking of harrowing tales he can tell, during World War II, Private Morales was attached to Virginia’s 116 Infantry Regiment under the command of Major Thomas Howie, a former English teacher and coach at Staunton Military Academy. Senor Morales is one of only a handful of America’s veterans who can still give a first-hand account of storming Omaha Beach at 0630 hours on D-Day, June 6, 1944 as part of Operation Overlord to liberate Europe from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.)

Destruction was catastrophic across the island after San Felipe Segundo pummeled Puerto Rico with 160 mile-per-hour winds and two feet of rain. And yet, what a different time it was back then. Like many fellow ‘jibaros’ who lived in the mountains of Puerto Rico, Luis grew up without electricity or running water. Everyday life and the mountainous agrarian economy of the 1920s ran without these present-day necessities.

Eighty-nine years after San Felipe Segundo, Puerto Rico has been hit hard again, this time by Hurricane Maria. In the morning of September 20, I watched in dismay the weather radar signal go blank as the entire island lost power. More than a month after Maria made landfall, nearly three million people (about 80 percent) who call ‘Isla Borinquen’ their home remain without electrical power or running water. This truly is a humanitarian crisis for our fellow U.S. citizens.

Relief efforts are hampered because the government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, is $72 billion in debt. On the brink of insolvency, Puerto Rico soon will have insufficient cash flow to cover basic obligations. Making matters worse, the island’s only electric utility company, PREPA, is $9 billion in debt and in default.

These circumstances are discouraging and distressing, but here is what galls me right now. With double-digit unemployment and forty-five percent of the population of Puerto Rico living at or below the poverty line, PREPA negotiated with an off-shore, private, for-profit company to repair the 2,400 miles of transmission lines and 30,000 miles of distribution lines across the island. Site supervisors are being paid as much as $462 per hour; regular lineman, $319 per hour! On top of these exorbitant wages, hotel/accommodation fees and food allowances are more than $400 per worker per day!

Yes, this is an acute human emergency. Yes, the work requires skilled labor, is dangerous and the working conditions are difficult. Yes, the island’s electrical grid was unreliable and in horrible shape prior to the hurricane. Nevertheless, who is going to pay these excessive bills? The U.S. tax payer.  We need to voice how our monies are to be spent.

I recommend that we think outside the box as we help get Puerto Rico back on its feet. Let’s not spend all our money merely to rebuild and restore the failing, monopolistic, electrical utility system that presently generates power primarily from imported fossil fuels. Instead, we should set about helping Puerto Rico transition to a diversified, resilient, and reliable electrical system that draws upon what the island has in abundance year-round: sunshine, wind, and ocean power.

Using primarily local entrepreneurs and local labor, rebuild and retrofit homes and businesses with wind-resistant, solar roof shingles. Set up retractable wind turbines to catch the trade winds. Use ever-present ocean waves and currents to generate electrical power. Place electrical cables below ground and out of harm’s way. Install ‘smart-grid’ technologies that communicate and work together, greatly reducing the frequency and duration of power outages, and helping restore service faster when outages occur. In short, let’s empower Puerto Rico by assisting ‘La Isla de Encanto’ to become a laboratory and a model of 21st century electrical generation and distribution we all can learn from.

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