A Day in Post-Maria Utuado, Puerto Rico

November 29th, the 70th day after Hurricane Maria.

“We are in the next house →” Find out why below.

My taxi driver from the San Juan airport to my nice hotel had no light in her home. She charged her cell phone in her car and used it as light. When I offered her the solar powered battery/lamp combinations I had brought to give away, she got very excited, and wanted one for her friend who was also in the dark. I demurred, perhaps wrongly — this trip has been all about learning, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The next day, Art and I were picked up the Enrique Mendoza, a University of Illinois grad with a law degree from the University of Puerto Rico, and now the Executive Director of the Carlos Beltran Academy for talented Puerto Rican baseball youths, and went to buy 20 5-gallon bucks. I had brought 50 Sawyer Point One water filters, 10 Lifestraw Family water filters, 20 Hiluckey solar-powered batteris, 25 Anker solar USB chargers, and 20 Suaoki solar lanterns in my luggage, and we put as many as we could is his SUV, along with the buckets and my portable drill.

There gear I took to Puerto Rico to give away

At the time I had planned the trip on Nov. 1st, shipping to Puerto Rico was snarled, and I was told to bring stuff in my luggage. This is no longer a good idea — shipping is now smooth — but disaster recovery efforts are always evolving.

Driving along the highway, the signs of Maria are everywhere. Most obvious is that most of the traffic signals don’t work. Many of the power lines are down. Poles are often broken or twisted or even missing. Houses have blue tarps on some of the roofs. The road side has downed trees pushed together in giant windrows.

Art looking at a concrete power pool twisted beyond recognition

Enrique took us to meet Daisy Ruiz of the Carlos Beltran Foundation, who would spend the day explaining my broken, barely comprehensible Spanish to those that needed it and explaining what they say to me — I can’t hear well and my Spanish is weak. Most Puerto Ricans understand English, but half of them are more comfortable in Spanish. After hearing me try to speak Spanish, a lot more of them suddenly prefer English.

Art Malm, Enrique Mendoza, and Daisy Ruiz

We met at a washed out bridge, which luckily had not isolated a nearby branch of a University.

A bridge in Utado Washed Out by Maria

In Utuado, we went to talk to PRASA, the state water company, to find out where our water filters might be most needed or wanted. We passed these flags, and Enrique explained to me that those who want statehood for Puerto Rico prefer Puerto Rican flags with a blue that is a Navy Blue, matching the US Flag, and those who prefer that Puerto Rico become an independent land or perhaps stay a territory prefer a flag with the light “Carolina blue” as seen in the large flag below and the smaller one displayed beside Old Glory.

We followed another helper from the area, Juan Carlos, up the steep, damaged road, past one downed power line after another.

A common scene in Utado — power lines still on the road

We came to a site that had upset the intake of water from the lake in Utuado, which the PRASA engineers had quickly adapted to by taking water from the river.

“We are in the next house.”

This sign read “Estamos en la proxima casa →”. “We are in the next house.” Why do you suppose they wrote that there? Because Maria blew their house down the lakeside!

A few feet to the right of the previous photo.

But we are not here to rebuild houses — much as that is neede — but to perform the much smaller effort of distributing water filters and solar batteries. We continue up the hill. Never let it be said Puerto Ricans let Maria kill the spirit of Christmas.

A Roadside Nativity Scene In Utuado

When we planned this trip, it was very hard to get information about Puerto Rico. We weren’t sure our water filters were really needed, until we came upon this lady filling a water container from a stream flowing down the hill.

Young woman in Caonillas getting water from a hillside

She wanted a filter, and a Hiluckey solar lamp/battery. We got out our buckets and drilled the first hole for mounting the Sawyer filter. The filters are easy to build, and I had printed the user manual in Spanish, but of course people without power may not have drills, so I had brought mine.

Then next lady we met, Margarita Ramos, was hoeing sand away from her walk. With Daisy’s help, we discovered that she lived alone and wanted our lamp and our filter. She had untreated water running in her tap — I don’t know from where, probably a cistern, but wanted the filter. She graciously allowed us to take her picture, even though, in her words, she may not have looked her best at the moment.

Juan Carlos wisely realized that this was going to take a long time, and since he was from this neighborhood he drove ahead and told people to meet the house of a local leader.

This gave Art time to inspect some more of the local housing.

Art Inspects Rubble in Utuado

Blue tarps are stopping leaks on roofs everywhere; I suspect this was not an official “Operation Blue Roof” contractor job since they don’t do carports. At our hotel back in San Juan, the Army Corps of Engineering guys who work for Operation Blue Roof would later share stories about iguanas, horses in houses, and mean dogs with us.

A typical “blue roof”

When we finally got to the old hidalgos house, 8 or 10 people quickly arrived. Daisy explained the solar lanterns better than I could.

Daisy holding a Suaoki solar lantern and Anker solar charger

In addition to a fair amount of solar stuff, we gave away 20 water filters that day. (We gave more than one to some people to distribute to neighbors.)

Nine Citizens with filters. Homeowner on far right.

Later, we sat on the porch and had some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. Apparently, an Israeli lady had been there a few weeks before distributing filters. But there are 80 families in this community, and ours were still needed. There had been 100 families, but some families simply left after Maria, leaving their homes behind.

Later, Art and I philosophized on the effectiveness of what we had done. The solar lanterns and solar chargers would be useful. However, when we planned the trip, we didn’t realize that most Puerto Ricans have cars, because the public transportation is high inadequate — they use less polite terms to describe it. Anyone with a job needs a car. Most people, therefore, could charge their phones in their car. However, this would save them having to turn on their car, and buy gas, and had better lights than using a cell phone, etc.

It is a bad idea to drink untreated, unfiltered water from a mountain stream; but in truth it is safer than drinking from a ditch near the seashore. When we planned this trip, we didn’t know what the situation was. We may not have saved even one illness in this action; but in the small chance that we stopped a communicable or debilitating disease, perhaps it was worth it. There have been no epidemics in Puerto Rico, in part because of a powerful radio information campaign telling people not to drink unboiled or unfiltered water; we made that easier.

If we had been a month earlier, we would have had a bigger impact. The time for personal missions with equipment in your luggage is past its prime — enough systems are up in Puerto Rico that giving money to a reputable NGO is more efficient. But we didn’t know that would be true when we ordered this gear and bought our plane tickets, and trustworthy information about details of the situation in Puerto Rico were lacking. We came in part to do fact-finding for Engineers without Borders and to satisfy our own curiosity and to act as amateur journalists, in addition to giving away the $4,000 of goods we brought, which will be a tiny economic boost to the American citizens of Puerto Rico even if it does not save lives.

(This work was supported by the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation through a grant from the Michael J. Reed and Kristin Toner Reed Foundation. We would especially like to thank Enrique, Daisy, and Juan Carlos for taking time out of their week to assist us, and the Beltran family for allowing them to do so.)