Steven Sands sits outside his home with a flashlight and his smart phone at night, coping with the lack of electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
in ,

One woman is stepping up to do what Tesla won’t do in Puerto Rico.

Tesla became a media darling for their promises to power Puerto Rico. When they didn’t pan out, young volunteers stepped up to do it themselves.

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico’s southeast, it destroyed the the region’s largest medical center, Hospital Ryder. Nearly 50 days later, the community hospital is operating on two shaky generators and suffering heavy leaks every time it rains, which is often. Its staff is working on a volunteer basis and has no idea when the local grid will be back online. Rain buckets line the operating room.

From any angle, Ryder seems a perfect and urgent candidate for Elon Musk’s promise to bring decentralized solar power to the whole of Puerto Rico. The hospital’s director, Dr. Deana Hallman-Navarro, certainly thought so. At her request, Tesla last month sent a team to assess Ryder’s candidacy for panels. They ultimately rejected the application, citing the presence of two running generators on loan from military. This stunned Hallman-Navarro. The generators produce a trickle of power, are hard to service, frequently break, and can take up to two days to fix.

“A Tesla representative said the hospital was originally a high-priority target, but because we have generators, we are down at the bottom of the list,” said Hallman-Navarro. “But we are barely functioning. In 2016, we had almost 6,000 admitted patients, and now we have four.”

Not long after Tesla declined to provide panels, a 22-old medical volunteer from Los Angeles named Yasmeen Farooq visited the hospital as part of a relief group. Farooq landed in Puerto Rico expecting to find a certain amount of disfunction. Like her fellow newly arrived colleagues, she’d followed the reports of political in-fighting, debates over debt and territory status, mayors pleading, governors begging.

But she was shocked at the failure of government agencies and large NGOs to provide energy to battered hospitals like Ryder.

The shock was laced with confusion, because she had seen how solar power could alleviate the medical emergency across the island. During a visit to San Juan’s Children’s Hospital, she saw 700 Tesla-supplied panels installed in just eight days.

“I got chills from seeing the panels functioning,” says Farooq. “I knew if it could be done so quickly here, it could be done at hospitals and schools across the island. Whether from Tesla or other energy companies, solar is a must.”

But as it turned out, not only was Tesla imposing all-too-restrictive limits on who would qualify for their solar panels, the panels they were providing weren’t gifts at all: the enormous array Farooq had seen at San Juan’s Children’s Hospital was on loan for just one year. After that, Tesla—a company worth about $48 billion—will need to be paid.

With institutional failures on all sides, Farooq was done waiting. Together with three other medical volunteers from the mainland, she founded an NGO called Generate Some Love. The mission is to solarize hospitals like Ryder, and ultimately bring the benefits of off-grid micro solar to all of Puerto Rico.

Last week, between trips to the southeast, Farooq was eating lunch in downtown San Juan when, by chance, three officials from Unidos, the island’s largest post-Maria NGO, sat down a couple tables away. Farooq couldn’t believe her luck. Unidos is reportedly sitting on between $10 and $20 million, and has declared southeast Puerto Rico its priority. Now, sitting just ten feet away, was one of its board members, the Coca-Cola executive Alberto De La Cruz.

Farooq walked over, introduced herself, and explained how her new organization, Generate Some Love, could save lives. But she was reminded of how little-understood solar power really is when De La Cruz asked some probing questions about the benefits.

“I told him that this not-for-profit hospital has seen the government and Tesla come and go, and is still sitting dark and dripping,” said Farooq. “I told him that nobody knows who is sitting at home without prenatal care because the hospital is closed. That prescriptions are going unfilled, cancers undiagnosed, and diseases like Leptospirosis spreading unchecked. I told him about surgeries by cell phone light and kids screaming in starvation. I told him solar panels have already proven themselves on the island.”

Farooq left the conversation feeling confident that she had convinced one of De La Cruz’s colleagues, if not De La Cruz himself. It was a small taste of the skepticism she and other green energy advocates will face as they attempt to build a stronger, more resilient Puerto Rico in the coming months and years. But native activists and mainland advocates like Farooq are laying the groundwork for solar in the short and long term, working with non-profit organizations and reaching out to private benefactors.

Solar panels won’t solve every problem in Puerto Rico’s hospitals, of course. Hospital Ryder is still waiting for FEMA to send an industrial hygenicist to combat mold, and the Army refused to allow the use of a military trailer for an operating room, citing “too much bureacracy,” according to Hallman-Navarro.

And why did the hospital request a narrow Army trailer for an operating room in the first place? Because the one on the hospital’s ground floor continues to leak.

You can help bring solar power to Puerto Rico’s hospitals by donating to Generate Some Love at generatesomelove.com

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Times, The Guardian, Vice, and many others. He is the author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance; The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump's America; and Out of the Ooze: The Story of Dr. Tom Price.

LEAVE A REPLY

“This is not your private property:” Why I’m facing charges for taking on an oil giant

A black and white photograph of Alex Azar, from the chest up. He is wearing a suit and smiling for the camera. The background is black.

Dude Who Tripled Price of Insulin Nominated to Regulate Price of Insulin