Hurricane Maria

Solar Laundromat Spins to Life in Puerto Rican Community

With water and power still inconsistent post-Maria, several Puerto Rican towns get a solar-powered solution.

The mountainous community of Utuado, Puerto Rico, is pictured here on May 26, 2018. That's where a new solar-powered laundry room was installed for community use for two nearby communities that have been without power for over eight months. (Photo by Erika P.  Rodriguez for Direct Relief)
The mountainous community of Utuado, Puerto Rico, is pictured here on May 26, 2018. That's where a new solar-powered laundry room was installed for community use for two nearby communities that have been without power for over eight months. (Photo by Erika P. Rodriguez for Direct Relief)

In the mountainous community of Utuado, Puerto Rico, things that were once simple before Hurricane Maria – the ability to drink a glass of water from a home’s faucet or wash clothes for a family – became herculean tasks, if not impossible.

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The hurricane destabilized the water supply system of the island, leaving mountainous communities like Viví Arriba and Consejo, in Utuado, a town located 45 miles from San Juan, without consistent water services. Without a reliable water supply, residents of the Viví Arriba and Consejo neighborhoods were forced to wash their clothes in mountain streams since María swept across the island last September. The communities in Utuado sit at high altitude, making water pressure unpredictable and services inconsistent. Since the hurricane, infrastructure is even more fragile.

A brand new solar-powered laundry room at the non-profit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, Inc., in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Inside the former public school, the group, funded by Direct Relief, opened a free laundry service for the two nearby communities who have been without power for over eight months. The group, coordinated by Miguel Morales, serves as a community and aid center in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Many of the residents of the mountainous area are elderly and underprivileged. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)
A brand new solar-powered laundry room at the non-profit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, Inc., in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

But last week, a row of gleaming new washing machines stood ready for the community to use. The water and power for the machines is made possible by solar panels mounted on the roof of the community center that houses the new laundromat, which was funded by Direct Relief and coordinated by Puerto Rican nonprofit, Por Los Nuestros. A battery system was also installed, so that power can be stored.

From left, William Reyes, Miguel Morales and Ivan Robles, of the community non-profit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, Inc., pose for a portrait at their home-base in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, P.R., on May 26, 2018. Inside the former public school, the group, funded by Direct Relief, opened a free laundry service for the two nearby communities who have been without power for over eight months. The entity, presided by Morales, serves as a community and aid center in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. Many of the residents of the mountainous area are elderly and underprivileged. (Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)
(L to R) William Reyes, Miguel Morales and Ivan Robles, of the community nonprofit, Acción Comunitaria del Viví, stand outside a former public school turned community center, where the solar laundry is located. (Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

Utuado community leaders Miguel Morales, Iván Robles, William Reyes, and Carmen Mercado – all of whom have lived in the area for decades – stood in front of the new washing machines that they hope will provide some normalcy to over 1,300 residents in nearby neighborhoods that still lack power and running water in their homes.

Access to clean water is critical to health, and communities without it can be especially vulnerable to water-borne illnesses if their drinking supply is compromised during a storm or power outage.

Miguel Morales, president of the community nonprofit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, Inc., checks the water pressure in the building before solar laundry services open in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Inside a former public school, the group, funded by Direct Relief, opened a free laundry service for the two nearby communities who have been without power for over eight months. The group, coordinated by Miguel Morales, serves as a community and aid center in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Many of the residents of the mountainous area are elderly and underprivileged. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)
Miguel Morales, president of the community nonprofit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, checks the water pressure in the building before solar laundry services open in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018 (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

Utuado’s solar laundry project is part of a larger effort to install solar panels and battery storage systems so that community water supplies are more resilient and reliable during the next emergency. Por Los Nuestros and Direct Relief are also at the helm of similar projects in the Orocovis and Yabucoa communities of Puerto Rico.

Families do laundry on Friday, June 22, 2018, at the opening of a solar laundry facility in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Solar laundries are now operating in Orocovis, Utuado and Yabucoa. (Photo by Maylin De Leon for Direct Relief)
Families do laundry on Friday, June 22, 2018, at the opening of a solar laundry facility in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Solar laundries are now operating in Orocovis, Utuado and Yabucoa. (Direct Relief photo)

Despite the challenges since Maria for Utuado, local leaders are looking to the future with the same optimism that prompted them in 2016 to transform a vacant school into a community center where the laundry facility is located. The school building now houses Viví Community Action, Inc., a nonprofit organization providing services to local families.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Utuado, the once-vacant facility coursed with activity. Inside its walls, eight families who lost their homes to the hurricane found shelter. Mental health clinics were also organized there, and volunteers packed more than 3,000 boxes of filtered water for distribution to residents with no access to drinkable water.

A sign announces to residents that the new solar-powered laundry room at the non-profit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, Inc., in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico, is open for use on May 26, 2018. Inside the former public school, the group, funded by Direct Relief, opened a free laundry service for the two nearby communities who have been without power for over eight months. The group, coordinated by Miguel Morales, serves as a community and aid center in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Many of the residents of the mountainous area are elderly and underprivileged. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)
A sign announces to residents that the new solar-powered laundry room is open for use. Nearby communities have been without power for over eight months, and many of the residents of the mountainous area are elderly and underprivileged. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

The towns of Viví Arriba and Consejo are still in recovery mode. More than 40 houses were entirely destroyed by the hurricane, according to Morales, who serves as Viví Community Action’s board president. Reyes estimates that less than a third of his neighbors have access to a generator.

“This is a poor community. There are a lot of elders. People live from agriculture or from state help, but they don’t receive a generous retirement pension,” said Robles. “Helping our community and our love to help others is what moves us.”

Immediately after the hurricane, Miguel, Iván and William walked up to six hours a day, with machetes in their hands, clearing the debris and unraveling the electricity cables that were left tangled in the woods. When Direct Relief offered to support their community work with additional resources, they organized and constructed the pipelines of the laundromat.

A brand new solar-powered laundry room at the non-profit Acción Comunitaria del Viví, Inc., in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Inside the former public school, the group, funded by Direct Relief, opened a free laundry service for the two nearby communities who have been without power for over eight months. The group, coordinated by Miguel Morales, serves as a community and aid center in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Many of the residents of the mountainous area are elderly and underprivileged. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)
A battery system harnesses solar energy that powers the laundry and water pumps. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

Each of them have lived in Utuado for decades, and consider themselves caretakers of the place, even maintaining seven miles of state highway that passes through the area.

“History has taught us that it’s us who have to take care of our communities,” said Robles. “We seek to help our community in all the ways we can. We want future generations to learn that from our actions. It’s a legacy.”

(From left) Residents Evelyn Roman, Miguel Morales and Luis A. Perez (far right) talk with Manuel Cidre, from Por Los Nuestros (second from the right) in Barrio Vivi Arriba, Utuado, Puerto Rico., on June 7, 2018. Inside the former public school, a free solar-powered laundry service, funded by Direct Relief, was built for the nearby communities, who have been without power for over nine months. The former school serves as a community and aid center in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)
(From left) Residents Evelyn Roman, Miguel Morales and Luis A. Perez (far right) talk with Manuel Cidre, from Por Los Nuestros in the community center’s kitchen, where food was being prepared for workers that are repairing the community’s electrical system. (Photo by Erika P. Rodríguez for Direct Relief)

The group is already planning programs that would benefit the community once recovery is more well-established; A health fair, first aid workshops, disaster trainings and more mental health clinics are all in the works.

In the meantime, smaller tasks – like a load of laundry for a local family – just got a little bit easier.


Since Hurricane Maria made landfall, Direct Relief, with support from AbbVie and others, has supported 67 local community health centers and hospitals with 398 emergency shipments of requested medication and supplies totaling more than $67.8 million, 361.5 tons and 9.1 million defined daily doses.

In addition to providing medical material assistance, Direct Relief has worked with community-based groups in Puerto Rico to invest more than $2.2 million in grants to bolster health services and local infrastructure. Projects have included an island-wide vaccination campaign, solar energy and battery installations at medical facilities, water system repairs for communities still without power, and the construction of solar-powered laundries, among others.

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