Apr 08, 2018
Like everywhere else in Puerto Rico, the small mountain city of Adjuntas was plunged into total darkness by Hurricane Maria. When residents left their homes to take stock of the damage, they found themselves not only without power and water, but also totally cut off from the rest of the island. Every single road was blocked, either by mounds of mud washed down from the surrounding peaks, or by fallen trees and branches. Yet amid this devastation, there was one bright spot.
A Solar Oasis
Just off the main square, a large, pink colonial-style house had light shining through every window. It glowed like a beacon in the terrifying darkness.
The pink house was Casa Pueblo, a community and ecology center with deep roots in this part of the island. Twenty years ago, its founders, a family of scientists and engineers, installed solar panels on the center's roof, a move that seemed rather hippy-dippy at the time. Somehow, those panels (upgraded over the years) managed to survive Maria's hurricane-force winds and falling debris. Which meant that in a sea of post-storm darkness, Casa Pueblo had the only sustained power for miles around.
And like moths to a flame, people from all over the hills of Adjuntas made their way to the warm and welcoming light.
Already a community hub before the storm, the pink house rapidly transformed into a nerve center for self-organized relief efforts. It would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any other agency would arrive with significant aid, so people flocked to Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws -- and draw on its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics. Most critically, Casa Pueblo became a kind of makeshift field hospital, its airy rooms crowded with elderly people who needed to plug in oxygen machines.
Thanks also to those solar panels, Casa Pueblo's radio station was able to continue broadcasting, making it the community's sole source of information when downed power lines and cell towers had knocked out everything else. Twenty years after those panels were first installed, rooftop solar power didn't look frivolous at all -- in fact, it looked like the best hope for survival in a future sure to bring more Maria-sized weather shocks.
Visiting Casa Pueblo on a recent trip to the island was something of a vertiginous experience -- a bit like stepping through a portal into another world, a parallel Puerto Rico where everything worked and the mood brimmed with optimism.
It was particularly jarring because I had spent much of the day on the heavily industrialized southern coast, talking with people suffering some of the cruellest impacts of Hurricane Maria. Not only had their low-lying neighborhoods been inundated, but they also feared the storm had stirred up toxic materials from nearby fossil fuel-burning power plants and agricultural testing sites they could not hope to assess. Compounding these risks -- and despite living adjacent to two of the island's largest electricity plants -- many still were living in the dark.
The situation had felt unremittingly bleak, made worse by the stifling heat. But after driving up into the mountains and arriving at Casa Pueblo, the mood shifted instantly. Wide open doors welcomed us, as well as freshly brewed organic coffee from the center's own community-managed plantation. Overhead, an air-clearing downpour drummed down on those precious solar panels.
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