Soon, I leave for Puerto Rico…with bags full of water filters and solar panels

Robert L. Read
Nov 26, 2017 · 5 min read

I am not a relief worker. They say one should never self-deploy in disasters. Nonetheless, when neglect extends a disaster for months, I think a certain personal hair-on-fire urgency is called for. The people of Puerto Rico have been needlessly suffering since September 20th…more than two months, and some predict the loss of power, and therefore clean water, will continue in places for many more months. Nevertheless, San Juan has power and is safe to visit, and has working hotels, restaurants, and WIFI. I am hardly doing anything brave or dangerous. Nor is it particularly generous, as my brother-in-law’s foundation has donated money for the equipment, although my expenditure of time is not inconsiderable.

But am I doing anything effective? I can’t be sure. There is always the danger that a well-meaning outsider like myself is simply in the way. I am coming with $4,000 worth of equipment, which no doubt will be appreciated — if it can be gotten where it is needed. Perhaps this time, energy and money would be better spent supporting a charity that already exists in Puerto Rico, such as the two that are supporting me on this trip, SER de Puerto Rico and Diego’s Relief Project of the PACIV foundation. But I feel, and I hope the Puerto Ricans will feel, it is better for an outsider like me to try, perhaps clumsily, to help directly, than to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the suffering.

It is clear they are suffering. Estimates vary, but probably about half the island is without power as I write this, and the most optimistic estimates still put 600,000 people without power. Humanity lived without electricity for millennia; but they had planned to live without electricity for millennia. That American citizens can be left without power for so many months seems to me an embarrassment that should be worth more news attention. I am going in part to act as a journalist. Again, there is a danger of hubris here — I am a literate human being, but I have never been a professional journalist.

Still, there are questions that need to be answered, and my curiosity is one of the reasons for making a personal trip.

How are the people that don’t have power coping with not being able to refrigerate their food?

Have they changed their diet?

What percentage of people without power have generators?

If they have generators, how much is it costing them to run them? Are people being sickened by drinking unclean water?

What will be the economic impact of being without power for months? Are businesses going under?

Are families using up their savings to buy diesel fuel for generators?

If information and reportage coming out of Puerto Rico were more complete, perhaps I would not have planned a personal trip.

Of course, I have tried to be as informed as possible. I have communicated with about dozen people who have either been in or are in Puerto Rico, and through them found the two charities that have been kind enough to interrupt their normal work flow to offer me and my companion, Art Malm, a water professional, an escort to hard-hit communities. At the time I planned the trip, the personal solar panels and water filters that I am taking seemed like what was needed; I soon learn if that is still true. I began planning this trip in late October, but am only going now in part because it was hard to get a flight OFF the island — so many people were “fleeing” the island that it was cheap to easy to fly there and hard to fly away.

One might also say it is arrogant to try to help people when my Spanish skills are so poor; but Puerto Rico is more English-friendly than some other Spanish-speaking lands. Nonetheless, I have taken pains to print all the user manuals for my water filters in Spanish.

I am volunteer for Engineers Without Borders, but this is not an official EWB trip. However, I will be seeking ways in which the Community Engineering Corps of EWB can assist Puerto Rico. In fact curiosity is one of the main reasons I am drawn to this trip: I want to understand what can be done. I want to understand where we as a nation can go and are going.

A great opportunity is being missed in Puerto Rico: The destruction of the grid and the need to invest more could in theory be used to create a partially decentralized grid based on more use of solar power in places far from transmission lines. Sadly, this would require leadership, foresight, and above all else, capital, which is lacking. I say sadly because this investment would have a high return on investment: it would be cheaper in the long term to rebuild a decentralized, partially solar grid. One can imagine Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter or Reagan saying: “We will use this opportunity to test a new way of building a resilient grid, to the benefit of all Americans and especially the Puerto Ricans.” But such foresight requires character, investment, and the ability to focus and invest long term that is missing today.

In the next few weeks, I will be reporting on what I learn, both in terms of how best to help the American citizens of Puerto Rico and what I have personally learned about the how to effectively help people. Until then, let me suggest only the following: consider vacationing in San Juan this winter. The climate is tropically warm and mild, a nice change for Northerners and Yankees, and San Juan is a beautiful and historic place to visit. The rest of the island is till recovering for the purpose of tourism — I think — but no doubt Puerto Rico could use your tourism dollars right now. Remember, Puerto Rico is an American territory, so it uses dollars and requires not passport.

Public Invention

Free and open-source invention for all humanity

Robert L. Read

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Public Inventor. Co-founder of @18F. Presidential Innovation Fellow. Agilist.

Public Invention

Free and open-source invention for all humanity