Three Takeaways from Disaster Relief in Puerto Rico

By Mark Baker* (IPS) 

Water in Puerto Rico

HAVANA TIMES – Those of us working in disaster relief know what to expect when a hurricane or earthquake strikes with devastating fury.

We know that safe water, food, and shelter will be the most immediate needs for survivors. And we have a good idea of the kind of wreckage we’ll see, although we never cease to be humbled and sobered by the tragic sights.

We also know that each crisis will offer unique challenges and opportunities that can inform our future relief work. At Water Mission**, we respond to disasters because we care deeply about the people affected. As a result, we constantly seek to improve the efficiency, timeliness, and excellence of our work.

When Water Mission arrived in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria swept through the island, we were met with a different set of circumstances than we have seen in most other disaster contexts around the world.

As a U.S. territory, most communities did not need a new, central system for treating and distributing safe water. What they needed was power for their existing water and septic systems that were inoperable.

Pivoting to address this need led to a few valuable takeaways that will refine our approach to future disasters: Be prepared to adapt your response as needs unfold.

With 18 years of disaster response experience, we know that most crisis situations require immediate solutions to turn contaminated surface water into safe drinking water for entire communities.

This means that we typically deploy our Living Water Treatment Systems — designed for swift set-up in disaster zones — or other water treatment equipment appropriate for that context.

Water Mission in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, this approach was helpful in a few circumstances, but it did not meet the greatest need of most communities. When our team began working on the island, we realized that many rural communities still had intact water and septic systems.

They were simply unable to use them due to the lack of electricity. Rather than treating surface water and setting up community distribution points, we needed to provide an independent power source and the electrical expertise necessary to reconnect their existing water systems.

Transition to long-term solutions as soon as possible

Although this is always the goal, it requires creativity to adapt disaster relief projects into sustainable community solutions. Since the rural Puerto Rican communities needed power to get safe water flowing, we quickly changed our strategy from providing water treatment equipment to restoring short-term access through generators.

Water Mission in Puerto Rico

Then, to reduce communities’ future dependency on the island’s electrical grid, we began replacing generators with long-term solar solutions. Water Mission installed more than 1,300 solar panels in 22 arrays, which generated more than 400 kW of power and created sustainable microgrids that support solar pumping solutions.

These solar projects are currently supporting 22 communities, and we have another 30 projects under construction with plans to work in up to 60 more communities. Today, the electrical grid is still unreliable or extremely expensive in many of the communities we serve.

Solar power offers a reliable day-to-day solution for these communities, with the added assurance that they will still have access to safe water if another storm strikes and the electrical grid is damaged again.

Adjusting our response also required Water Mission to immediately blend a sustainable community management model with our typical disaster response strategy.

Before installing solar arrays, we needed to invest time collaborating with local leaders and providing the training necessary for communities to assume ownership of the project moving forward.

To ensure they can afford to maintain the solar arrays as needed, we also worked together to develop practical financial models that would set the communities up for success.

Deploy more technical staff as soon as the needs are assessed

The unique situation in Puerto Rico demonstrated the value of quickly determining the true needs of community members and shifting strategies accordingly.

Moving forward, we plan to continue building out our response team so that we can have even more engineers and technical employees available for immediate deployment when the right skillset and equipment are identified

This strategy will allow us to provide the most helpful solutions to communities as swiftly as possible.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, the only thing we can count on is chaos. Every situation will be different, but each offers valuable takeaways for how we can improve the excellence and expediency of our response in the next crisis.

When we evaluate our own relief efforts along with the successes or challenges of other field partners we’ll become more effective and efficient in the field.

At Water Mission, our hope is that these learnings will allow us to decrease our response time and reach more people in future disasters, while providing the most useful solutions for their unique situations.
*Mark Baker is Director of Disaster Response at Water Mission

**Water Mission is a global engineering nonprofit that has engineered and implemented safe water solutions in 55 countries. In addition to disaster relief work, it has delivered safe water to refugee settlements in Uganda, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, and have established programs in 10 different countries to provide sustainable solutions to remote, rural communities.