Two local women bring solar lights to hurricane-ravaged Caribbean island

Paula Chandler and Vieques residents with Luci solar lights.

On November 7, Paula Chandler heard from a friend that his water tap was trickling after 18 days of no water on Vieques, an island off the southern coast of Puerto Rico where she owns a second home. When Chandler, a Woodstock resident, was in Vieques for a week in early October, the water worked for a few days, but then as now, there was no electricity, very limited cell service, and food and cash were in short supply, as a result of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on September 20.

Eugenia Krause of Mount Tremper, who also owns a house on Vieques, went down to check on the situation in mid-October and had to wait five hours in line for gas, as gas stations rapidly ran out of supplies, with people stocking up for the few generators scattered across the island. Both women own houses made of concrete, so their properties survived the storm, although five glass doors had blown out of Krause’s home. Neighbors with wooden houses are homeless, their structures flattened by the hurricane.

Both Krause and Chandler bought solar lights and solar-powered phone chargers to distribute to people on the island. Both women, distressed by the plight of their neighbors, are getting ready to return to Vieques with more lights and other supplies. They say most of the relief efforts on the island have been provided by individuals, not organizations or government agencies.

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The owners of a new Vieques magazine put up a page on gofundme.com and raised $400,000 in four days. A donor let them use a private plane to fly in ten satellite phones, medicine, and supplies, and to fly out people with serious medical conditions. Chandler sent them money, but a week before her trip, as news of the devastation came in over Facebook, she longed to offer further help. Online she found the Luci, a portable, inflatable, waterproof solar light, priced at $15. “I texted everyone I knew and asked them to donate money,” recalled Chandler, a realtor, who raised $2600. MPOWERD, the maker of the Luci, agreed to supply her with lights at the wholesale price of $10 apiece. (At present, their website offers the lights at $7.50 each for disaster relief.)

Chandler prepared to fly to Puerto Rico with a couple hundred Luci lights, 150 “D” batteries, and bug spray. When she offered, via Facebook, to bring other items, she received requests for information. “People wrote, ‘I have not heard from my family. Can you contact my uncle and find out how they are?’ But there are no street names on Vieques.” People sent her detailed directions, and she found every person on her list. Her house, in the town of Isabel Segunda, is near a cell tower that had been hooked up to temporary equipment, so she was able to text their relatives with news.

Chandler gave a solar cell phone charger to her upstairs tenant, who has no car, the usual means of charging phones in the absence of electricity. She drove all over the island, handing out solar lights to residents. At one of several relief kitchens set up by a Puerto Rican restaurant association and staffed by local chefs, she helped serve food and distribute containers of rice and beans. She flew home determined to bring more assistance to the island’s hurting inhabitants.

“When you’re flying into San Juan,” said Krause, “you see every other house with a blue tarp.” Many homes by the ocean, hit by water surges, took in two feet of water, and roofs not made of concrete blew away. Inland, mud slides inundated houses near the mountains, with mud oozing through the louvered windows and leaving two feet of muck inside. With bridges washed out and no way to repair them, people in the mountains can’t get to the towns to shop.

Vieques, population 9000, is ringed with pristine beaches, where many professionals from the main island of Puerto Rico have second homes. There are no large condo complexes or hotels crowding the beaches as at other tourist destinations. “People who work at gas stations or grocery stores, lawyers, doctors, storeowners with generators — those people will be okay,” said Krause. But businesses catering to tourists have no customers, while agricultural crops have been wiped out.

“If you have cash, you can get things,” she said. “At the grocery store, you can’t find fresh milk, but there’s boxed milk. A truck delivers twice a week, and people come in and buy up almost everything right away. For the first few weeks, no one could use credit cards because there was no Internet service, and people couldn’t get money out of the bank.” Now banks fill their ATM machines intermittently, and the cash is gone within hours.

There is little information available on why the water system worked for a week and then stopped, although a rumor suggested the pumping station on the main island needed a new computer panel. “It’s not easy to cook and clean when you have no water,” Krause pointed out. “If you have money, you’re buying gallons of water. And even if you have a cooler, you can’t get ice, so you can’t refrigerate anything. In a week, I got one bag of ice. If you’re on insulin, you’re screwed.”

Most of Puerto Rico’s power grid is down, and Vieques is not expected to have electricity until Christmas. Krause brought boxes of string lights to give away, tiny linked solar-powered lights designed to be draped as decorations, handy for stringing through the house. “One guy had parents in their 80’s,” she said. “They had two flashlights they were using to go to the bathroom. I gave him string lights for the house, so the old people wouldn’t fall in the night.”

A Facebook post on November 7 reported, “2 engineers from Tesla rented a vehicle from us yesterday for a week. If all goes well, they told me they will be back with 20 to 30 more in a couple of weeks. I am hopeful and almost hugged them.”

“I’m going to find them,” said Chandler. “The island is small, and there are only three restaurants open right now.” Tesla has already put up a solar array to restore power to a children’s hospital in San Juan and is considering other solar projects.

Attitudes on Vieques are generally positive, with a confidence that people will survive by helping each other. But Krause said, “One woman was crying because she lost her house, and her old father was sleeping on a wet bed. She has no money, no job. It’s heartbreaking. Then there are people like me, coming to fix up my house. I arrive with money, and I can survive, get what I need, and leave.” She plans to buy more lights, hopefully wholesale, and bring them to Vieques in early December.

Chandler was gearing up to head back in mid-November with another batch of Luci lights. She has raised additional money by going through an old address book to contact people she hasn’t talked to for 10 years. “I love Vieques,” she said. “I’ve gotten completely obsessed with Puerto Rico. They need so much help. The extent of the devastation is incomprehensible — and I’m not exaggerating. I wish I were.”

To donate to Paula Chandler’s solar light fund, visit GoFundMe.com and search for Solar Lights for Puerto Rico. For updated information on the situation in Vieques, join the Facebook group Vieques Dining. 

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