‘Even When the Island Gets Power Back, It’s Not Over’

An alum who travels back to Puerto Rico sees an opportunity for transformation.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, half of the island remains without power. In the days after the storm, Puerto Rico native David Marrero, ’07, traveled to San Juan to deliver emergency supplies to his family and others in need. He returned with stories of people in chaos and crisis — and a drive to rebuild.

Stanford: What was your first impression of the damage?

David Marrero: As we were flying in, you started to see home after home with no roofs. We saw cars lined up for miles, and then we realized, well, that’s a line for the gas station. That alone was already pretty eerie. Every time I went there as a kid, it was lush and green. Now it’s all brown, no tree cover — just branches and bare trees. It looked apocalyptic.

When we got off the plane, people in the terminals immediately asked us, ‘Hey, what did you bring? If you have a generator, let us know, because we’ll have three people walk out with you. People are robbing these things left and right. Can you get gasoline? Do you need diesel? If there’s a case of water, we’ll buy it from you now.’

I flew with my dad from Miami. My grandfather has an apartment not too far from the airport. My uncle and dad share a car when they’re on the island, and they had a full tank of gas. So my grandfather picked us up and then we just loaded up and went back to the apartment. It had no windows; all the windows had been blown out. No air conditioning — no power. That kind of became home base.

Marrero chronicled the building damage, but says water and electricity are residents’ greatest needs right now.

Stanford: Did you venture beyond San Juan?

Marrero: We were able to go to Caguas; I have a lot of cousins in that area that needed some help. And we have a small business in Puerto Rico, and the dad of one of our co-workers died within four days of the hurricane; he was in a nursing home and they weren’t able to get a shipment of oxygen for him. So we went out there to help that family deal with things. You know, it’s one thing to not have power, but you forget that there are people who need oxygen and other goods too. Many are terminally ill. We also delivered goods to Arecibo, just west of San Juan; the major roads had just gotten cleared.

Stanford: Where did you feel people’s desperation the most?

Marrero: Definitely with the gasoline. About 80 percent of the gas stations were damaged. So not only was there a shortage getting the gasoline from the ports to the gas stations, but there also were gas stations that were completely destroyed. I saw, on at least three counts, people pull knives or guns on each other waiting in gas lines. People were getting frustrated, desperate. It was every man for himself — that type of feeling. Also food markets. We went with my aunt to help her get some dried rice. And at the supermarket, they were only letting five people at a time in because of the looting after the storm.

The water and electricity shortage is what people are feeling the most now. Even just on the outskirts of San Juan, they’re running out of bottled water. People don’t know there are drop spots. You don’t know there’s a huge shipment that just went into the parking lot by the nearest supermarket because, without cell service, you can’t get on Facebook; you can’t get on Twitter; you can’t text with your family.

Stanford: Are there goods you wish you had taken that you didn’t?

Marrero: If there were a way to bring in propane and diesel, that would have been number one, because people were burning through it so quickly. And people were incredibly grateful for battery-powered fans. There’s no power, so [no] A/C, it’s hot, and the breeze out there does not help. I think it would have been far more effective if I’d brought more fans and batteries.

Marrero delivered supplies to families and others in need.

Stanford: In terms of power, what’s the situation like at the hospitals?

Marrero: So, in the town my family is from, where we had a farm growing up, Morovis, and another town called Orocovis, those hospitals are still operating at about 15 percent because they’re still running generators. Once the diesel runs out, you have to refill it. So they’re trying to determine, “OK, let’s run 18 hours a day; we won’t run for six hours,” but in that time they still have some intensive-care patients that are struggling. Some high-need patients are in local hospitals that have not gotten full power back.

Stanford: How are people cooking without power or gas?

Marrero: For the majority of people, it’s dry foods; it’s granola bars. Anything natural, of course — bananas and pineapples and coconuts — so much of that died or was damaged. People who do have a generator are running a burner for an hour a day, cooking up rice to last a week or two. But there’s more and more desperation. There’s no clarity in terms of when people are going to get power. How long is their food or bottled water going to last? When can kids go back to school? How long are they going to have to live like this?

Stanford: What obstacles might there be for bringing in investment in greener energy and for rethinking the grid?

Marrero: A big part of it is communication, with the U.S. government working with the Puerto Rican local government. But I’m not hearing a lot of clamoring about that. I’m not hearing folks stand up and say, “Hey, me next — what can I do, and how can we have a seat at the table?” I work for IBM, and I’ve talked to some of the VPs there, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s going to be a great opportunity to get some of our Smarter Cities initiatives or some of our support that we have with partners.” I want to hear more of that conversation.

I think [Elon Musk’s Powerwalls] are a great start, and if anything it’s a good opportunity for competition to see who else has solutions. But short term, how do we get power to people, get things back up and running, get some lives saved? And then we can determine what the full infrastructure approach is going to be.

You know, it was interesting to see the interaction between the governor and President Trump. What do we do now, right? How do we truly rebuild? Elon Musk reached out to the governor and started talking about using solar [energy] to rebuild the power grid — to not build an aboveground power grid that will again be susceptible, but leading the way. I think that’s the biggest call to action and opportunity that I see for a Stanford alum, for the Valley, for a lot of researchers. I think Puerto Rico is open to listening, open to new ideas, and willing to take risks.

I think there’s a call to arms so we don’t depend on the government to fix the future. Entrepreneurs and folks with ideas, let’s go see what we can do. Let’s offer services, and let’s try and rebuild Puerto Rico as a model for alternative energy, with unique delivery systems and new distribution networks. We need to truly understand that this is a longer-term thing. There are folks that are going to continue to struggle for years, decades.

The bare trees made the landscape look apocalyptic, Marrero says.

Stanford: What else would you like to tell us?

Marrero: I think that focusing on the narrative of what an individual in the government isn’t doing holds us back from what other individuals can do. You just roll up your sleeves and join with other people who want to help. You know, we got more done there than folks who have been complaining and expecting somebody else to do something. Also important are accounts of how the narrative surrounding Twitter feuds and statements that the president made in the days and weeks since the hurricane have had an impact on the level of desperation that people feel on the island.

When the president or other leaders made comments about the island needing to do things for itself — or that we were on our own — it truly did affect the lives and level of hopelessness of people in Puerto Rico. Even without cell service, or TV, they knew what was being said in the rumor mill. When people hear that help won’t come, or that the island is fine — when they know it’s not — they’re more likely to take matters into their own hands, and in an unhealthy way.

You know, even when the island gets power back, it’s not over. A lot of families are going to struggle for years to come — those who lost loved ones, or lost everything they owned. So don’t forget.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos by David Marrero.