When Alex Rodriguez learned of the death of a man from his hometown in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, he didn’t see another tally in Hurricane Maria’s human toll. He saw himself.
“I knew where he came from,” Rodriguez said. “He was 27 years old when died, the same age as me when Maria struck.”
The man from Canovanas began exhibiting signs of the leptospirosis after washing clothes in a nearby river. Leptospirosis, a bacteria that can penetrate the skin and spreads through water, can turn deadly if left untreated or treated too late. The man from Canovanas received treatment but not soon enough. He died from the infection.
When Hurricane Maria cut off communities from their water sources, residents collected river water to meet basic needs.
This struck Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in environmental chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico and an advocate for clean water access.
“Water has always been priority number one for me. It’s a vital source of life,” he said.
Por Los Nuestros
After learning of the man’s tragic death in a local newspaper, Rodriguez picked up the phone at 5 a.m. with an idea. He called a friend of a friend, Jay Fonseca, who works as a journalist and radio host and was starting a group called Por Los Nuestros to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
“We’re going to do solar laundries,” he told Fonseca.
If people could have laundromats powered by solar power, which could also power the pumps for underground wells in many rural communities, they wouldn’t need to wash clothes in the rivers.
“I said, if you want help, I’m in,” Rodriguez recalled.
Por Los Nuestros immediately went to work. Rodriguez and Fonseca went on the radio and within 15 minutes, three companies had volunteered to donate materials. Sonnen donated solar energy batteries, Whirlpool donated washing machines and P&G donated detergent.
The group launched the first solar laundry in Caguas, where one of the island’s fatal cases of leptospirosis had occurred, and continued installing the laundries in communities throughout Puerto Rico.
Almost 12 percent of the island is disconnected from Puerto Rico’s central water utility, the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, or PRASA. These communities often rely on wells that depend on electric pumps and are vulnerable to power outages.
If power goes out, water becomes unavailable.
After Hurricane Maria, Por Los Nuestros used funding from Direct Relief to energize three non-PRASA systems in Orocovis, providing a permanent clean water system to approximately 1,500 people.
This model is being replicated in non-PRASA communities throughout Puerto Rico, including in the 2,200-person town of Yabucoa, where a power system was completed this week.
After Hurricane Maria struck, the first thing Rodriguez tried to do was communicate with his family.
Rodriguez’s wife, who works at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital, was on lockdown. Nearly a week past before they could talk with each other. Rodriguez’s father, who lives on a ranch in Rio Grande, was unreachable for days.
His sister, a neurologist in Chicago, specializes in pediatric epilepsy, and immediately began working to get medicines to the island.
“Wherever we can help, we help. That’s how we were raised,” Rodriguez said.
For the next seven months, while working with Por Los Nuestros to get clean water to people, Rodriguez lacked power in his own home, except for a small generator that powered two small fans and his refrigerator.
What Hurricane Maria Exposed
Three weeks after Maria, Rodriguez went to deliver water in Orocovis, a community in central Puerto Rico that was badly impacted by the storm.
Going from house to house, Rodriguez saw that residents had a supply of single use bottles, but no water supply to provide water for daily life.
He met a 93-year-old woman, who reminded him of his own grandmother. “I thought, I have to help,” he said. “They don’t need a bottle of water, they just need water.”
Rodriguez said that the storm pulled back the curtain on the reality of poverty on the island.
When the storm ripped away the island’s green canopy, people could clearly see the homes underneath, many which were poorly built and couldn’t stand up to the mighty winds that swept through.
More than a year later, housing still remains an issue. Rodriguez said in his own neighborhood, 20 percent of homes are abandoned.
Looking to the Future
As he prepares this doctoral thesis, Rodriguez acknowledged that in academia the tangible impacts of research can sometimes take years to materialize, but that hasn’t been his experience with Por Los Nuestros.
“We built it. We did it,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Since Hurricane Maria made landfall, Direct Relief, with support from AbbVie, has supported 78 community health centers and hospitals with 534 emergency shipments of requested medication and supplies totaling more than $70.2 million (wholesale) and 9.7 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 $12 million in initiatives to bolster health services and local infrastructure. Projects have included an island-wide vaccination campaign, the installation 791 kilowatts of solar energy and 2 megawatts of battery backup at 14 health centers and non-PRASA communities, a telemedicine initiative to extend health services to rural areas, and equipping Puerto Rico’s medical reserve corps, among others.