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.

We ALL live in a potential disaster zone–but we’re not helpless

Which Disaster Zone do you prefer?

That was the question my Beloved asked, not long after Hurricane Maria finished doing the job on Puerto Rico that Irma had left half-finished, and the central Mexico earthquake had leveled significant portions of the region.

His question caught his co-workers by surprise, but–if you think about it–none of us really should be surprised. So, then, what’s your answer? Where would you rather live?

You could live in a tropical paradise like Barbuda or Puerto Rico, where a hurricane can level your entire island in a few harrowing hours, or where rising sea levels threaten to swamp your home, your livelihood, and your most beloved scenic areas.

Photo of El Capitan rock slide by climber Peter Zabrock.

You could live in a mountainous region with breathtakingly gorgeous peaks, cliff faces that shear off without warning, enormous swaths of drought-parched forests that one careless cigarette butt or lightning-strike can ignite into an inferno that changes the weather and denudes stabilizing plant growth so you get buried in mudslides the next time it rains real hard. (The video that follows is from fires in 2015 but it’s representative.)

You could live in an earthquake zone, where grandfathered-in or shoddily-constructed buildings (or buildings on unstable ground) could collapse on you in seconds, and destroyed infrastructure may very well leave you with no water, no powerimpassable roadsand leaking natural gas.

For more amazing before-and-after Mexico City photos from The New York Times please click the link for the entire article.

You could live within range of a volcano that could turn your neighborhood into a “lunar landscape” of ash and death. I’m looking at you, Ring of Fire–but don’t smirk too hard, Plains States: do you know what lies beneath Yellowstone National Park?

Lava trees–actually the places where trees once stood–after a Hawaiian volcanic eruption.

You could live, as I do, in “Tornado Alley,” where extremes of weather created by our position in the middle of a large continent spawn violent storms during much of the year, and extremes of politics create danger from poorly-regulated toxic materials (think about Picher, OK, or Times Beach, MO), and many other insidious hazards (unfortunately, the NAACP’s travel advisory on Missouri seems all too reasonable, to this Missouri native). To be fair, though, none of the US is all that safe from racismgun violencepollution, and crumbling infrastructure.

An abandoned home in Times Beach, MO.

We can’t do much about some of the risks and hazards that surround us every day–but there are other things we can do, from building wisely for the kinds of environmental hazards our area faces (more on that in future posts) to speaking out and working for a cleaner, safer world where every person, no matter how troubled or disadvantaged, is seen as a being of infinite worth.

IMAGES: Many thanks to The Washington Post, for the video of Utuado, Puerto Rico’s situation after Hurricane Maria. I deeply appreciate climber Peter Zabrock’s photo (via the Associated Press) and The San Francisco Chronicle for the vision of the rockslide on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and CBS This Morning for the video of the 2015 fires in the San Bernardino area of California. The  amazing before-and-after photos from Mexico city, published by The New York Timesare part of a larger article, featuring many more photos. Many thanks to Amusing Planet’s article, “The Lava Trees of Hawaii,” for the arresting post-eruption image of what used to be a forest. The photo of a ruin in Times Beach, MO, is from a Danish Pinterest board, “Udforsk disse idéer og meget mere!” (Explore these ideas and more).

Memories of the 2017 NASFiC

Perhaps you’d like to see a presentation my son Tyrell Gephardt and I prepared, about our experiences at this year’s North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC), held anytime the Worldcon is not in North America (which it is not this year; it’s in Helsinki).

We hope you enjoy(ed) it–we certainly enjoyed our time there. We’ve also shared this presentation with KACSFFS, our local Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, both at the July meeting last Saturday and on the KaCSFFS Blog (scroll down).

Ty and I also spent a couple of days afterward, wandering around in fascinating Old San Juan. It’s possible some of the thoughts and photos from those peregrinations may end up in future blog posts here!

IMAGES: At least half of those in the NASFiC presentation, are by Jan S. Gephardt. Most of the other photos in the presentation are by Tyrell E. Gephardt; the remaining photos (credited at the end of the NASFiC presentation), and also the Featured Image at the top of the post, are from the official website of the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, where the NASFiC was held. Many thanks!