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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.