I’m a lucky guy. I work for a company that gives employees the opportunity to volunteer 40 hours per year. We can do it with the non-profit organization of our choosing. With so many needs in our planet, it can be a daunting task to figure out how to help. The decision came rather easily this year for me, since my wife is essentially Puerto Rican and I have visited the island continuously since 2003. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, entering the island at the municipality where most of my extended family lives. Aware of the difficult situation, I joined Nethope (and indirectly Save The Children) between January 22 and 26 of 2018, 4 months after the storm left most of the island without water and electricity. Nethope’s mission is to “change the world through the power of technology and collaboration”. Specifically, Nethope is restoring Internet connectivity to public schools in Puerto Rico. This is what I learned:
#1: Generosity has no limits when the heart is in the right place
Too many forms of generosity. From Cisco, my company, for donating state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment and putting together a program that encourages volunteer work. From other Bay Area companies, for supporting similar efforts, with at least one of them going to the extreme of paying for the employees’ tickets and hotels. From Nethope and Save The Children, for opening the doors to complete strangers. From Puerto Rico’s teachers, school directors and the Ministry of Education staff, for bypassing formalities, giving me plenty of time to discuss the schools’ needs and fulfilling my requests promptly. From my extended family, embracing me as they always do, this time with a room, most of my week’s meals and plenty of night entertainment in our long nights playing dominos.
#2: Come with an open mind, the opportunity may not be found where you expect it
I helped Nethope to install connectivity solutions in the southeast of the island. Since the schools that we visited did not have electricity, our team always started with the installation of solar panels. This was followed by the setting up of secure routers, wireless access points and in most cases, radiofrequency links. That was expected. But surprisingly, my greatest contribution was in a completely different area. After speaking with the Save The Children’s country team manager, it became clear that the organization was in dire need of schools data in order to prioritize efforts, not only for the Internet project but for other relief endeavors. With that in mind, I spoke to school directors and Ministry of Education staff. I got, or I’m in the process of getting, all the information needed for one of the seven regions of Puerto Rico. How did I do it? I initiated conversations of a different kind at the schools that we visited. I drove to the government offices. I announced myself, and with very little red tape, I got to talk to the right people.
#3: Being there is essential for the first time, but you can help remotely
I strongly believe that the first trip is necessary. Face to face makes a difference. Understanding of the field and a closer engagement with the relief operations provide the context. As mentioned above, speaking with others may result in the identification of more impactful projects. But if for any reason you find difficult or inconvenient to travel again, there is plenty of follow up work that can be completed remotely. For example, after my successful proof of concept, I could either complete the data for all Puerto Rico regions with additional volunteering, or recruit someone else to follow on the same steps. In brief, not all forms of aid require a physical on-site presence. We are in the era of information, in which gathering, analyzing and interpreting data are also forms of volunteering.
#4: Global warming can destroy the tourism industry
Palmas del Mar is a beach resort located in Humacao, which happens to be one of the most devastated areas. I almost shed tears when I saw that the beaches where I would play with my children when they were little, were gone, almost gone or severely ravished. This is not to make bad publicity of Palmas. It continues to be a great place, but a large portion of its appeal is now missing. The loss of beach surface is, however, a long-standing problem. The hurricane simply accelerated the erosion process. In addition to the lack of sandy areas, the hurricane undug hundreds of palm trees and make tall skeletons of the palms that stood on foot. The marquee hotel of the resort, a Wyndham, is still closed. There were no golfers. I counted just a few jogglers in my late January visit, a time of the year that is part of the high season. A similar fate suffered another hotel from the same chain in Rio Grande, this one in the northeast quadrant of the island. The Yunque forest remains closed to visitors.
#5: Demographic changes are breaking Puerto Rico’s economy
A simple visual inspection reveals scores of homes with no signs of life: broken windows, unhinged doors and rusty chains are commonplace in rural districts and small towns. The street malls of Yabucoa and Humacao remain closed, with just a few businesses, mostly restaurants, having opened recently. Only the pharmacy is open in the big Walmart of Humacao.
Hurricane Maria hit the island after eleven years of economic recession, pushing forward the immigration process that has beleaguered Puerto Rico since 2005. Back then, the population hovered around 3.82 million. The most recent official estimate was made public days before Maria, at 3.34 million people.
My initial estimate, based on schools’ enrollment and some government accounts, is that at least 50,000 people have left the island since Maria, and have not come back. Many of them left because schools remained closed for a long time, and even today, in areas with no electricity, the length of the school day is two hours short. K-3 literacy rate is a concern. Puerto Ricans are immigrating to the United States at a record rate, especially to Florida. I believe that the population is already south of 3.30 million, probably in the 3.27-3.29 million range. If this were true, Puerto Rico would have lost at least 530,000 inhabitants since 2005, equivalent to a population decrease of about 1.1% per year over a full dozen of years. This decline rate would be the highest in the world for a country not directly impacted by a war or a refugee crisis. The drop is worse than that of any country in Eastern Europe.
With less consumers and users of services, enormous structural challenges, a tourism industry suffering the unimaginable, an indebted country and a failing real estate, how can the government and the private industry save Puerto Rico and their investments? How can we, volunteers, help?
#6: Resilience, every day, every night
No electricity? Thousands of generators begin their torturous concert around 6pm, roaring for about four hours of auditive pleasure. Rechargeable lamps are ubiquitous, providing indispensable light in the early morning. Batteries are essential supplies, and the radio is king again. No water? Gather rain. Use it for cooking and showering. Drink bottled water. No Internet? Do your work offline and then take a ride to one of the few places around known to have it. When transmitting or downloading a file from that happy place, be patient. It takes a long time because the fiber over the island is still unreliable and Internet access is most of the times provided only over the cell network, where you compete with your fellow Puerto Ricans checking Instagram and music applications from their smart phones.
#7: However, the Puerto Rico of the future continues to take shape
President Trump’s iconic Puerto Rico moment, throwing kitchen towels to a multitude of followers, has made an impression. A negative one. The island, usually politically divided, would appear united in its sentiment towards our current President. I talked to dozens of people, including family, family friends, occasional acquaintances and colleagues in the field. No one under the age of fifty had kind words for Trump or the GOP. Adjectives or sentences used to describe the President ranged from “ignorant” to “insensitive” and “racist”. Puerto Rico has voted along party lines for almost half of a century. My gut feeling tells me that this is going to change, driven by the young. In the words of one of them, “we are busted until the old generation dies”, alluding to the old party lines. There is no doubt in my mind that the reaction of politicians and other public people after hurricane Maria will be used politically against the status quo.
#8: Be ready for some frustrations; just do not fall in despair
Reconstruction and relief projects are complicated, as it’s the case of most multiparty endeavors. In our day to day, the enterprise success not only depended on the actions of Nethope, but also on each one of the project partners: donors like Cisco, Claro as a Service Provider, Save The Children as the program manager, the Ministry of Education and each one of our contacts in the schools. There were times when our work was handicapped by the simplest of reasons: a generator without fuel, a battery damaged or limited access to a building. Because of the island’s devastation, the fiber optic network is still under repair. Many times, we were forced to provide Internet through the cellular network at low speeds. I was left wondering, more than once, “all this effort for this low speed?” But little is better than nothing, the fiber will be up someday and help takes many shapes. Late in the week it occurred to us that surveying sites pre-installation would have been one of the best ways to use volunteering time.
A last item: many are asking why Puerto Rico does not rebuild under an innovative construction plan that would prepare the island for the next storm. For example, underground cabling and wiring. I think that’s a great discussion to have, but the emergency comes first and the debt level of the island does not open the door for investments. Measured by debt burden to public revenues ratio, Puerto Rico is more indebted than Greece.
Thanks to Ingolfur Haraldsson, the first Icelander that I have met; Julian Eccli, my volunteering pal; Casey Harrity; and every teacher, director and staff of the Ministry of Education (in reality called Department of Education or DE) whose names I have omitted to avoid unnecessary and unwanted attention.