A Puerto Rico Community Powers Its Future

Andres Rodríguez Rodríguez in his home in the Bauta Abajo community, Orocovis, Puerto Rico. Bauta Abajo has been without power since Hurricane Irma hit the island seven months ago, leaving residents without a reliable water source. Rodriguez is now in charge of maintenance of the two water pumps that will serve about 300 homes. The pumps are powered by a recently installed solar power system, funded by Direct Relief and coordinated by local foundation Por Los Nuestros. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)


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When 85-year-old Don Andrés Rodríguez Rodríguez described the place where he grew up, he answered without hesitation.

“Perfect, my community is perfect,” he said.

Rodriguez lives about 3,000 feet above sea level in Bauta Abajo, Puerto Rico, one of the island’s rural mountain communities, where the sky and clouds can seem close enough to touch.

But since Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico last September, conditions in his neighborhood have been far from perfect.

Visible damage from Hurricane Maria’s impact can still be seen throughout Bauta Abajo. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

Bauta Abajo isn’t connected to the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) for water services, so residents like Rodríguez rely instead on power-operated wells. Without power, accessing water is a challenge.

Rodriguez’ community has been without electricity since Hurricane Irma made landfall last year. The island was just beginning to recover from Irma when Hurricane Maria’s Category 4 winds swept through the island two weeks later.

Formerly a farmer of coffee, yautia, plantains, bananas, and flowers, Rodriguez now maintains the decades-old pumps that bring water to the community’s nearly 300 families.

Rodriguez’ history is intertwined with that of his community. He’s helped build several systems to provide drinking water to his neighbors.

Andres Rodríguez Rodríguez, 85, poses for a portrait at his home in the Bauta Abajo community, Orocovis, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

In 1968, Rodriguez was one of 12 workers to build the pipeline that routed water from rivers to homes in Bauta Abajo for the first time. That’s one of the four times he recalled the entire community pulling together to move Bauta Abajo forward. The next happened in 1996 when the wells were constructed. Then, when Hurricane María left Bauta Abajo isolated and without resources for weeks, residents rallied, cleaning the debris from the streets. The fourth occurred two months ago when residents heard about Por Los Nuestros, also known as the Foundation for Puerto Rico.

“Por Los Nuestros”

As Puerto Rico began to recover after Maria, a team of local leaders – Josué ‘Jay’ Fonseca, Manuel ‘Manolo’ Cidre Miranda, Dr.Francisco Arraiza Antonmattei, Anabelle Torres Colberg and Nick Pastrana Villafañe – began brainstorming ways to support their island.

Por Los Nuestros was born.

The group identified Bauta Abajo as a community that needed help to regain their access to water. They requested and received a grant from Direct Relief to install renewable energy systems in several communities without power, including Bauta Abajo.

These installations will provide Bauta Abajo with energy to power its water system without needing to rely on power from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Damaged power lines hover over the community. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

“We are installing a solar system with battery back up. Therefore, at night, [residents] can activate the system to provide water to the community… Even if there is no sun, they will be able to have energy,” explained Edward Previdi, contractor and electrical engineer in charge of the installation.

The two energy stations in Bauta Abajo will power two water pumps servicing different parts of the community. Solar panels that gather the sun’s energy have been installed in one of the locations, along with batteries and other solar electrical components. A second location had solar panels but lacked the ability to store the energy, so batteries and storage were installed.

Construction began in February and both power systems are expected to be operational by April 20.

When Rodriguez and other residents of Bauta Abajo heard about the solar project, they welcomed the news and also felt a strong desire to assume an active role in the construction.

Green Energy Systems Wilfredo Cabrera installs the inverters for the new battery in the solar power system that will energize a water pump. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

“They want to help. They want to seek solutions,” said Pastrana Villafañe, a board member of the Foundation for Puerto Rico. “Since the first day when we arrived, they said ‘ what can we do?’ This community has worked since day one to help their people. They have great leadership.”

Bauta Abajo residents Melvin Vázquez Ortíz and Francisco Alvarado Hernández worked long hours along with other neighbors, in sun and rain, to construct a 160-foot ditch and a cement enclosure to protect the rechargeable battery system.

“Without their help, we would have been here working for two additional days, because we only had four men,” explained Previdi.

From left, Melvin Vázquez Ortiz and Francisco Alvarado Hernández are the Bauta Abajo residents in charge of monitoring the new solar systems that power the community’s two water pumps. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

For Rodriguez, the hardworking spirit of his community does not come as a surprise.

A year ago, he was still working in the fields. Now, he dedicates his days to administering the water pumps that will distribute water again to his entire community.

Completed battery and inverters for a solar power system that energizes one of the water pumps that provides water for the Bauta Abajo community in Orocovis, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

When Rodriguez looks around his community, he doesn’t just see roads; he remembers the decades-long effort to maintain and preserve the community he loves — a community that, thanks to the resilience of its residents, has survived the worst nature can throw at it.

A water pump flows freely when powered by a set of solar panels and batteries in Bauta Abajo. The power system is one of two in the community, both of which are expected to be running this week. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)

 – Alejandra Rosa Morales is a journalist based in Puerto Rico.


Further Reading

Six Months After Hurricane Maria, Recovery Continues in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Launches Largest Single-Day Public Health Campaign Since Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria Hit Close to Home for Puerto Rico Health Worker