Seizing the day in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans (and residents of other devastated neighboring islands, as well) need everything–RIGHT NOW. There’s no question about that. Lives are at stake.

Certainly looks like a tornado hit: downed power lines in Humacao, PR — photo by Carlos Giusti/AP and CNN

But while FEMA and the Puerto Rican government are leasing power generators and shipping in enormous planes full of food, water, and medicine, I hope the people who will be rebuilding Puerto Rico keep their eyes on the future.

Loading up for Puerto Rico: an industrial size generator. They’ll need a bunch of them! Power is the most critical need.

I’m from Kansas, so when I heard a meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (who should know what he’s talking about) say of Hurricane Maria, “It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw,” I could relate. We Kansans understand about tornadoes.

Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico (see outline) — image by Joshua Stevens and NASA Earth Observatory, via Vox

One of the things I keep hearing is how antiquated the power grid and other infrastructure on the island are. This stems in large part from the crushing debt crisis that has been plaguing the island’s economy for years, a situation that’s a haunting echo of the history of not-too-far-away Haiti’s economic woes. How did that develop? I like John Oliver’s explanation (note: this video is 21 minutes long, but in my opinion worth the time to watch).

It’s a pretty massive mess, and a disaster on top of it all isn’t helping in the least. But I’m oriented toward thinking about finding opportunities for positive change, even in the worst disaster. The “tornado” comparison led me to wonder if the island could take a page from Greensburg, Kansas’ recovery playbook.

Not Puerto Rico: this is Greensburg, KS, in May, 2007 — Photo by Mike Theiss of UltimateChase.com

No, I’m not suggesting that the “green revolution” that seems to be working moderately well for a small Kansas town of 771 residents could be directly scaled up for a tropical island with a population of 3.4 million! Different climate, different terrain, much larger population–this is definitely not a “one size ought to fit all” suggestion.

All the government buildings over 4,000 sq. ft. in Greensburg today are built to LEED-Platinum standards — Photo by Fred Hunt/New York Times, via SaveOnEnergy.com

But the residents of Greensburg took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado. Those who survived emerged into a landscape of utter devastation. With pretty much nothing left standing except shattered trees and mounds of rubble, they were going to have to either rebuild brand new, or leave.

I have a sense that, on a hugely more massive scale, Puerto Rico is facing a similar scenarioGreensburg lost half its population after the tornado. Puerto Rico’s debt situation had already started that trend, and, like Hurricane Katrina before it, I imagine Puerto Rico will see some migration that becomes permanent after Maria. But the survivors who stayed in Greensburg, KS decided to build for the future.

There’s already some movement in that direction, in Puerto Rico. In the footsteps of solar panel user Eddie Ramirez, the Casa Sol B&B operator in old San Juan profiled above, there are indications that the solar industry might be interested in participating in a transformation of Puerto Rico’s power resources. Certainly if Elon Musk gets involved, some perspectives should change.

If ever a power grid was ready for a fundamental transformation, Puerto Rico’s is! –Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images, via Vox.

I hope they do install many more solar capabilities–but I also hope they don’t stop with only solar power. True resiliency lies in diversity. It seems possible that wind power (maybe not during hurricanes) and perhaps tidal power generation (after all, Puerto Rico is surrounded by ocean) also might be renewable contributions to Puerto Rico’s energy resources.

Example of a wind farm. This one’s located near the Danish city of Grenå.
An artist’s rendering of a tidal fence to harvest tidal energy, based on a design by Energy BC, of British Columbia, Canada.

Building codes should be designed with hurricanes in mind, mandating (and possibly partially subsidizing) more wind-durable homes and similar structuresas well as household and community-level preparedness planning for the next “big one.” I hope to discuss hurricane preparedness more in a future post.

IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN and Carlos Guisti of the AP, for the photo of downed power lines; to Diesel Service and Supply, for the photo of the Puerto-Rico-bound generator on the big rig; to Vox, the NASA Earth Observatory, and Joshua Stevens for the satellite photo of Hurricane Maria; to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and YouTube for the rather long video about Puerto Rican debt; to Mike Theiss and UltimateChase.com for the photo from Greensburg in 2007; to Fred Hunt/New York Times via SaveOnEnergy.com, for the more recent photo from Greensburg; to YouTube and NBC Nightly News for the video on the power crisis in Puerto Rico; to photographer Mario Tama of Getty Images, via Vox, for the daunting image of the downed power lines in Utuado, PR; to Siemens, for the photo of the Danish wind farm; to Energy BC of British Columbia, for the artist’s rendering of the tidal fence; and to Deltec, for the diagram of the hurricane-resistant house.

Published by

jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

Leave a Reply