In Morovis, a municipality of 30 thousand people in the north of Puerto Rico, more than half of the population was still waiting for power to be restored on this year's international women's day.
Sitting in her office on March 8, Mayor Carmen Maldonado said she wanted to honor the women who helped provide assistance for her people when Hurricane Maria hit the island on Sept. 20, 2017.
"Today I have an activity downstairs recognizing every female volunteer that was with me handing out food, handing out water, helping every community of our municipality and working in every corner of our town," she said.
When Maria hit Puerto Rico, it left behind roads and highways with no accessibility. Households were without water and power. Communication lines were damaged, which made it almost impossible for people to make calls or access the internet.
Right now, months after the storm, the electric crisis is still a pressing issue for a number of municipalities. Cities all over Puerto Rico rely on a struggling public company with an uncertain future.
At the same time, mayors from different parts of the island feel a lack of support from government agencies and are left to cope with the situation leaning on help from non-profits, private donations and their own communities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been spearheading recovery efforts.
However, Maldonado said the response was slow. Although FEMA grants individual assistance to Puerto Ricans, Maldonado estimated about 60 percent of her citizens had not received any help.
FEMA said the Individuals and Households Program is "intended to meet basic needs and supplement disaster recovery efforts," and it is designed to help people without insurance. The organization also said that it has provided close to 17 million dollars to individuals in Morovis.
When Maldonado went out on the streets to check on her constituents once the hurricane passed, she said she found desperate people and families in tears.
Many of them didn't have water or food. She went to the schools in town and took the school lunch food to give it to the people in need.
Maldonado said people tried preparing for the hurricane, but a lot of them didn't have the means to get ready for a storm in the first place. The U.S. Census estimated that at least 50 percent of the Morovis population is living below the poverty line.
The mayor says a lot of them lost their houses and were in the streets.
To worsen the situation, supermarkets and warehouses were closed. Most of the local businesses were also shut down because operating with generators was unaffordable.
Some of the local commerce only started reopening in March while most of them were still closed six months after Maria.
"The only few business that are opened right now are open only to maintain their names, instead of remaining closed, and are trying to get back in their feet little by little," Maldonado said.
Zulma Negrón, 43, owner of a flower shop near the main square in Morovis, had her business closed for more than three months. Even though she lost on sales, the florist still said she was grateful.
"We went through a rough patch but we learned a lot, you know?" she said. "The lesson was big and good. First, we have to be prepared for everything no matter what or when. And second, to share and to thank what we have in our daily lives."
The electrical crisis in Puerto Rico started long before the 2017 hurricane season. A year before Maria, the island's entire electrical system collapsed leaving the entire population without electricity for over 12 hours.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, is the utility company responsible for providing electricity to 3.5 million American citizens living on the island.
PREPA's debt in March 2017 was estimated to be of almost nine billion dollars, according to a memo published by a congressional subcommittee. The company also lost approximately 30 percent of its workforce since 2012, mostly due to retirement, which restricted the company's ability to respond to challenges.
In January, governor Ricardo Rosselló announced a plan to privatize the company and generate 30 percent of the island's energy using renewable sources. But to date, the government hasn't shared many details of the sale.
Looking at ways to feel more independent and the current rate of 40 percent of people still without power in Morovis, Maldonado started looking for alternatives of her own.
"Neighborhoods further away won't have energy for a long time. I am looking at a way that we could invest in a renewable energy system with solar panels," she said.
Early on April, Maldonado went to Miami to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Conference in order to get help to develop this project.
That's not a new idea on the island. Efraín O'Neill-Carrillo, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, argues that some communities in the island have been searching for clean energy alternatives for at last five years.
Before Maria, O'Neill-Carrillo had been working on building a solar power plant in which energy would be shared by a group of households in a community located in the south of Puerto Rico.
In 2010 the legislature passed the Public Policy on Energy Diversification by Means of Sustainable and Alternative Renewable Energy in Puerto Rico Act that set the goal of 20 percent of renewable energy generation for PREPA by 2045.
From 2009 to 2012, PREPA signed renewable energy contracts that consisted in utility scale projects. The problem is that PREPA sets an unreasonable limit in the amount of renewable energy the island can integrate in its electrical infrastructure, said professor O'Neill-Carrillo.
In fact, in July 2017, O'Neill-Carrillo and five other electrical power researchers signed a written testimony addressed to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, saying that, "in order to support the dominance of the centralized, fossil-based model and resist a renewable-based transformation, it is important to clearly explain where the infamous 580 MW limit to renewable energy comes from and why it is NOT correct."
As a way to address the issue, O'Neill-Carrillo was advocating and working for community systems that can work in different ways.
"It can be one big system that is chaired by different people in the community. Or it can be small systems spread around people's rooftops whose economic benefit is distributed among the community members," he said.
In San Germán, a town about 75 miles west of Morovis, Mayor Isidro Negrón said he doesn't believe the generation of electricity through renewable sources is attainable in the island.
Negrón said he doesn't have the money to make this kind of investment and doesn't think the insular government will invest in it anytime soon.
"The generation of energy through sunlight, through the wind, through the waves, all of this is feasible," he said. "We are an island surrounded by water, where there is wind, where there is sun, where there are waves.
"Every government promises to go in that direction, but when they are in power, there are strange forces that grab them and stop them from doing so because of other interests."
However, O'Neill-Carrillo believes that mayors have a privileged position between the people, the legislature and the top of the executive branch of government and could work as facilitators of the clean energy transition in the island.
"I think there's a very important role to be played [by mayors]. Not the role of a 'little PREPA' or a little utility that just oversees the microgrid. Community microgrids or community solar systems should be run mostly by the community," he said.
San German has population of about 30 thousand people. It wasn't until late January when the mayor said about 92 percent of the people had electricity again.
"The worst hurricane was after Maria passed through Puerto Rico when there was no power, when there was no water, when there wasn't an effective communication between insular government and municipal government," Negrón said.
The mayor estimated about 70 people died in San Germán as a consequence of the lack of electricity.
"Many people who needed dialysis weren't able to continue their treatment without power; others with diabetes didn't have an appropriate place to store their medications. Even some who were already living in bed and needed oxygen didn't make it," Negrón said.
After posting a few videos on Facebook asking for help, Negrón started getting relief from people and foundations on the mainland and from the insular government at last.
He created a volunteer group led by a retired National Guard colonel that had control over the donations and aid. At first, they used the facilities of the water park to hand out food and water. Later they started dividing into groups of four and provided assistance house by house.
In San Sebastián, a town in the northwest of Puerto Rico, Mayor Javier Jiménez Pérez also assigned groups to go around town dealing with the storm's destruction.
Besides having city workers assist, Pérez had already selected 25 additional teams to start cleaning the streets to allow residents to move around. He had the town obstacle-free in five days.
Pérez predicted water and power could go down; before the storm, he arranged three water trucks and five generators. However, a month after the storm the city still didn't have electricity back.
"Many of our people are elderly, are in bed, need machines for treatments, need to follow a certain diet, and because there was no electricity, none of this could be done," he said. "So a lot of people was falling into a deteriorated emotional state and deteriorated physical state."
San Sebastian resident Sheila Enid Vargas, 21, said that since her diabetic uncle couldn't refrigerate his insulin without power, they had to get ice somehow.
"At first, the ice factories were closed and when they opened, there was enormous lines. And many times they were already out of ice when it was our turn," she said.
Because the Army Corps of Engineers hadn't arrived in town yet to restore power, Pérez decided to create a municipal brigade with retired PREPA workers as volunteers and city employees to identify the power lines that had fallen and fix them.
This initiative was later known in town informally as "Pepino Power Authority."
PREPA and UTIER, the labor union for electrical workers in Puerto Rico, criticized the mayor saying he did not follow protocol. Pérez said the brigade established safety instructions and that while the Pepino Power Authority was operating, they didn't have any accidents.
"We have restored most of the electrical system here in San Sebastian," Pérez said. "Together with the community. We got the people of San Sebastian to take action. Pepino Power goes beyond the groups that were created, it is the people standing up to restore their electrical system, taking control of their own situation."
People from Mayagüez, an university town located on the west coast of Puerto Rico, also went weeks without electricity.
About 70 percent of the 75 thousand people in town were out of power for almost three months, according to Mayor José Guillermo Rodríguez.
Rodríguez has been mayor of Mayagüez for 24 years now. He has had to deal with many adversities, such as Hurricane George in 1998, a category 4 storm that caused a lot of destruction in the Caribbean. Back then, he learned to prepare in advance.
When expecting Maria, he hired a private company to start re-establishing the city as soon as it was safe. In early March, 20 percent of the people were still expecting power while 15 private brigades worked.
Mayagüez fabric shop owner, Adam Varela, 42, had to deal with a flood in his store that damaged some of the merchandise and the ceiling. He also had to remain closed for a month because of water and electricity issues.
Varela estimated his losses to be around 30 thousand dollars and predicted it would take him at least three years to get back on his feet.
"First we have to recover, and then try to recover the sales like it was before. And then try to recover the sales we lost because we were closed," he said.
Although Rodríguez criticized the lack of help provided by the insular government to Mayagüez and places responsibility on them for the struggles of PREPA, he recognized the major role the lack of communication played on the situation.
"When there's an emergency plan and something as fundamental as communications fails, you know you are by yourself and you can't rely on anything," he said.
The mayor rejected the idea of renewables as an alternative.
"The problem that we have now is that it sounds nice but the mechanisms that generates renewable energy have a lot of flaws and hidden clauses," he said.
Two hours from Mayagüez, an ecological non-profit in Adjuntas was able to run on its own solar power generation, which is independent from PREPA, the entire time the rest of the island was in the dark.
"Right away people were able to come to Casa Pueblo and it was used as an energy access," said organization director Arturo Massol.
Massol, who is also a professor of microbial ecology at University of Puerto Rico, predicted that light was going to be a huge problem in Puerto Rico during the hurricane season. From the beginning, Casa Pueblo launched a campaign to distribute solar lamps to people in Adjuntas and surrounding towns.
The organization was running independently on solar power for almost 20 years.
"We have been teaching about solar power for a long time, but on this occasion people came here and saw by themselves how reliable was for Casa Pueblo to generate our own energy consumption without the need for all that cable and that infrastructure," Massol said.
Casa Pueblo recently decided to start a project with clean energy and small local businesses. They were responsible for helping Wilfredo Pérez, owner of a barbershop in Adjuntas, to transition to solar power.
Massol said Pérez had the choice to use traditional power or his solar system, but had been running on clean energy since the installation.
"He is so happy and you can see it in his face. He's getting new customers because people want to get their hair done in his barber shop," the director said.
Wilfredo Perez owns the first solar powered barber shop in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria, his business was left without power and he had to close for a few weeks before he could re-open. With the help of Casa Pueblo and the director, Arturo Massol, Perez re-opened his solar powered barber shop. (Photo by Lerman Montoya)
Casa Pueblo now plans on expanding the project to help small markets in rural areas in Puerto Rico to run on solar energy in order to prepare for possible future crises. With his project, people will likely still have access to food in case of an emergency.
Massol said his organization was completely non-partisan and did not get involved with politics in any level. His plan on energy and view on the future of the island is completely autonomous.
"To us the main issue is energy self sufficiency. How can we reach, as Puerto Rico, energy self-sufficiency. I don't know how can the public or private sector do something. We're going to push for a social response," Massol said.
Renata Cló is a multilingual, multimedia journalist. Here, she shares some of her pieces.
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