Relief Mission to Puerto Rico
November 28, 2017 – December 5, 2017
The final report provided by Robert L. Read after his trip to Puerto Rico with Arthur P. Malm. The trip was funded in part through a grant from the Michael J. Reed and Kristin Toner Reed Foundation to the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation, which distributed the funds to the relief mission. To apply for a grand from the PIF Foundation, visit our website.
On November 28th, 2017, Robert L. Read (Rob) flew to Puerto Rico carting a variety of equipment to be used by people without safe drinking water or electricity. Rob was accompanied by retired water engineer Arthur (Art) P. Malm, from Chicago. The purposes for the trip were:
To distribute this equipment to those in need
To investigate and report on the situation in post-Maria Puerto Rico
To find future projects for Engineers Without Borders, if possible
The first two goals were successfully met, the third was not.
The trip was funded by a $5,000 grant provided by the Michael J. Reed and Kristin Toner Reed Foundation to the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation, a 501c3 educational charity.
The planning of the trip began on approximately October 28th. Prior to the expedition, investigation via telephone and email with various contacts who were in or had been to Puerto Rico suggested that power was largely not restored and people were having trouble obtaining safe drinking water. Based on this, sufficient funds were raised for water filters and small solar devices to charge cell phones.
At this time it was very difficult to obtain media information directly from Puerto Rico. At that time, advice from the PACIV Foundation suggested that traveling with gear in luggage was appropriate. Rob and Art traveled approximately 750 miles in these 6 days.
Each day Rob and Art traveled out from and returned to their hotel in the largest city San Juan, which is also the capitol and location of the airport.
November 28th, 2017 – Arrival
Rob and Art arrived at the Hotel Iberia. Based on a conversation with his cab driver, Rob gave her a Hiluckey solar battery.
November 29th, 2017 – Utuado
Rob and Art were picked up by Enrique Mendoza, Executive Director of the Beltran Academy. Enrique drove them to a hardware store where they purchased 20 five-gallon buckets with lids for the Sawyer water filters. The day is largely documented in "A Day in Post-Maria Utuado, Puerto Rico". To summarize, they drove into Caonilla, a mountain village in the state of Utuado, and distributed 20 water filters and a variety of solar equipment to people as needed. They photographed many downed power lines and damaged buildings.
November 30th, 2017
On this day, Rob and Art had no escort so they rented a car. Art agreed to rent the car and pay for all meals since Rob was paying for the shared hotel room. They drove to Humacao and took pictures which became, in part, the basis of the article "A View of Puerto Rico 71 Days After Maria". They spoke to four people in Humacao and distributed 3 solar devices.
December 1st, 2017
Rob and Art drove to Arecibo. In a suburb of Arecibo, they saw their first bucket truck (for doing electrical line work) and chased it down. From the linemen they discovered that perhaps 65% of the homes outside Arecibo had power, as well as Downtown Arecibo. The linemen took 3 water filters for use in their own neighborhoods. The cogen plant in Arecibo was not operating, although the cause is unknown - it could simply have been a lack of demand.
Art and Rob learned that there was neither water nor power in Ciales, a mountainous town southeast of Arecibo. They drove there, again noting the many downed power lines. Upon arrival at the main square of the town, they found the Catholic Church running on a generator. Having heard in San Juan and Arecibo that the church reliably knew who most needed the supplies, Rob and Art gave some equipment to Fr. Hector Cruz to distribute at the church.
December 2nd, 2017
Rob and Art were driven into Barranquitas by Mariela Jorge and Javier Jimenez, contacts of Art's friend, Jane Becker. There, they interviewed Shirley from the Office of Emergency Management, seeking opportunities for collaboration with the Community Engineering Corps, part of Engineers without Borders. Approximately 75% of Barranquitas had running water, but boiling restrictions were still in place. Thirteen hundred Sawyer water filters were already in use. They gave additional filters to Mariela's contacts, Esther and Jessica, to distribute.
December 3rd, 2017
Rob and Art drove to Lares, the westernmost point of their trip, where they met Luis Soto and Nilsa Velez of Pepino Por Una Causa. They went to the very remote neighborhood of Pezuela, which had been hit hard by Maria. Pezuela had no water or power and the non-concrete homes had no roofs because of the storm damage. While there, they met with three families and three people who lived alone and gave away the last of the solar equipment. Still having 11 water filters, they returned to Ciales and gave these to the Catholic Church for distribution.
December 4th, 2017
On this day, Rob and Art traveled to El Yunque National Forest, Naguabo and Huraces to take pictures. They discovered that El Yunque would be closed for a year. They took many photos of Huraces and the badly damaged wind farm there. In the evening, they met with Giancarlo Gonzalez, former CIO of Puerto Rico, and discussed the idea of creating a dynamic crowd-sourced map of power in homes based on text messages received from citizens and cross-correlated with their addresses, which could obtained through reverse lookup.
December 5th, 2017 – Departure
Rob published several articles at Medium during and after this trip:
- Puerto Rico 71 Days After Maria
- Why the Puerto Rican Government’s Electricity Statistics are Misleading
- A Day in Post-Maria Utuado, Puerto Rico
- How to help victims of Hurricane Maria Today
- Postcards from post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico
- Aftermath of Maria from two Puerto Rican Leaders
Evaluation of Effect
The articles published about this relief effort were read by at least 300 people and viewed by at least 600.
The water filters will prevent people from drinking untreated water. Most people without access to safe drinking water were either drinking bottled water or were using mountain streams, which had a low probability of being contaminated. It cannot be estimated how many people were following “boil orders”. There are no known disease epidemics caused by Maria, in part because the government ran an aggressive radio campaign telling people not to drink unsafe water. The filters have a small probability of preventing an outbreak of severe diseases. They provide an economic benefit to people who live alone, must rely on outside aid, and/or must purchase bottled water.
Rob and Art gave the filters with the expectations that several families would share one filter. Possibly as many as 500 people will be drinking water from these filters safely until chlorinated water is fully restored, which may take months still.
The effectiveness of the solar panels was limited by the fact that almost all Puerto Ricans have access to cars that can be used to charge cell-phones. Restoring cell phone use and providing light at night was a major goal. This was partially accomplished - people really wanted the solar powered lights because cell phones make poor flashlights. Additionally, much of the aid went to the old, infirm, bed-ridden, wheel-chair bound or those that may not have a car or easily be able to get into a car. In any case, the economic and ecological benefit of not having to run cars for the purpose of providing power was probably achieved.
In some cases, people who lived alone were given the small Lifestraw filters if they did not have a family close by to share with.
The fact that Spanish language instructions for the water filters had been printed and added to the bags containing the filters (which already had English instructions) was generally appreciated, even though demonstrations for how to use the filter were given to many people.
Only 35 of the bucket filters (with buckets and lids purchased in Puerto Rico) were distributed. Fourteen of these filters were given to the Catholic Church in Ciales.
All of the solar equipment and all of the smaller Lifestraw filters were given directly to the needy or to people in direct contact with the needy.
Given the relatively late arrival (70 days after Maria), the equipment did not help people communicate or save illness, but rather will be a convenience and economic savings to the people who received it. In Lares, people are facing such a poor living situation that the supplies may directly improve their health and well being.
Finally, there was probably a positive psychological effect on the people met, in that they felt that someone knew they were having problems and had come from a long way to assist them. Rob and Art received many thanks and blessings.
By the time of the visit, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria had ceased to be a medical emergency and had become primarily an economic disaster. The resources and community spirit of the island are such that people are not in imminent danger of illness or loss of life.
However, individuals have suffered severe economic setbacks, losing entire homes and all possessions. Moreover, a general economic slowdown (recession) is in effect now and likely to worsen. In particular:
Tourism has been reduced to about 1/10th of its previous levels
People in the service industry who had weekly paychecks are now unemployed
Small business are suffering. A waitress in San Juan estimated that 40% of restaurants are closed and don't have the capital to reopen, even if the tourist and cruise ship trade were fully restored.
Significant labor and capital will be absorbed in the rebuilding effort
People have had to suffer the economic inefficiency of paying for diesel fuel to run generators, if one is even available, and paying for bottled water
Traffic accidents have been common as traffic signals not working
Road closures and landslides continue to be a problem - landslides are still occurring with greater frequency than they were before Maria.
The government and people of Puerto Rico have done some things well. For example, the restoration of power to pharmacies, supermarkets and medical facilities has been a success. Since most houses are made of concrete and had concrete roofs, most homes were not destroyed, although almost everyone had water in their homes and damage to possessions.
Rob and Art drew several fundamental lessons from what they saw:
By far, the greatest cause for the lack of safe drinking water was the loss of electrical power to the water treatment plants and wells
The difficulty of communicating without cell phones or internet services created inefficiency in diesel, water, and medical distribution, which would have saved much misery if it had not occurred
The lack of communication methods made it difficult for people to reach loved ones
The lack of communication continues to prevent state-side resources from being fully deployed as might be expected in a situation that had great information available and the awareness this would foster
More flexible cooperation between government agencies at the beginning would have prevented jurisdictional disputes that made it difficult to clear roads
Crafting a better emergency plan is beyond the scope of this report.
Because the equipment was placed directly into the hands of people who were most in need and who would not have been able to learn about, purchase, and receive them, the economic benefit is estimated to be a significant multiplier (3 to 5) times the approximate $4500 worth of equipment distributed.
How to Help Today
Rob's thoughts on the best way to help have been published in "How to help victims of Hurricane Maria Today".
To summarize, Rob recommends tourism (with some caveats) and giving to two local charities - The Carlos Beltran Foundation and PPUC - Pepina Por Una Causa. For a larger charity, Rob recommends Ronald McDonald House Puerto Rico. Based on the recommendation of the very knowledgeable Javier Jimenez, Rob recommends: AmeriCares and International Medical Corps for their extensive disaster response experience and their ability to provide critical medical and other supplies on the ground immediately following the storm.
A google spreadsheet contains all expenses, which are documented on paper by the PIFF (Rob is the treasurer and in possession of this documentation at the time of this writing). It should be noted that Rob paid for the hotel room entirely and Art paid for the rental car and all meals. The hotel room was slightly more expensive as a two-person room. Art did not receive any funding from the PIFF or the grant for this trip.
The total expenses slightly exceeded the original grant of $5,000, of which $250 was taken by the PIFF as an administrative fee to set precedent for similar “umbrella” actions in the future. Rob was reimbursed $4,750 in two checks from the PIFF.
Many people assisted this effort. We thank first of all the Michael J. Reed and Kristin Toner Reed foundation for their grant of $5,000. The Presidential Innovation Fellow Foundation administered the grant and approved the plan and expenses by a majority vote of its board.
We would especially like to thank Mr. Arthur (Art) P. Malm, who traveled at his own expense and did half of the strenuous work of building the filters, demonstrating them to all of the people and all of the driving under difficult circumstances, as well as lending his water expertise to our journalistic effort and taking some photos.
A number of people provided very important Spanish interpretation skills as well as escorting us into remote regions and answering many questions. They are:
Enrique Mendoza, Executive Director of the Carlos Beltran Academy
Daisy Ruiz, Executive Director of the Beltran Foundation
Mariela Jorge, Executive Director of Ronald McDonald House Puerto Rico
Javier Jimenez, Director of the Primary Care Association Network of PR
Luis Soto, Pepina Por Una Causa (PPUC)
Nilsa Velez, Pepina Por Una Causa (PPUC)
Additionally, a number of people helped us find our contacts and offered other advice. Those include James Phelan, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Jose Morales, Javier Cruz, Frankie Garcia, Francisco Correa, Nancy Negron, Jane Becker, Debbie Sosa, Justo Moreno, Sara Lopez, and Shirley Santiago.