Five months after the worst hurricane on record made landfall in Puerto Rico, roughly 800,000 people are still without power as desperate islanders wonder whether their plight has been forgotten by the federal government. For the residents who need to power medical devices, this has been particularly traumatic. So the Red Cross has stepped up where the feds have failed by distributing more than 2,300 solar panels with accompanying batteries to the public, which includes 645 veterans.
“If you served in battle and survived, you should not have to suffer because of a poor electrical grid,” said Joseph Colon, a health system specialist in the credentialing department at the Puerto Rico VA hospital.
Puerto Rico has a population of 3.4 million who rely on an antiquated above-ground electrical system. 80% of the island’s power poles, lines and transformers were destroyed by Hurricane Maria on September 20, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been working to restore power. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported last week that 75% of its customers now have electricity, according to ABC News.
President Trump has said it would take a year to restore full power, but this was something that a team of social workers from the VA and Red Cross didn’t want to wait for.
“I had a conversation with the VA ombudsman and the idea came to see if we could assist,” said Ramonita Santiago, the Red Cross regional manager for armed forces services to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. “A bunch of folks came into the VA, they were having problems not being able to sleep and needing some assistance because they can’t turn on their sleep machines.”
Residents also needed to power small refrigerators for insulin, generators for oxygen tanks and recharge heart monitors.
“I had a veteran who needs to use a sleep apnea machine and he almost had a stroke because he became so disoriented without sleep, he didn’t know what was happening,” Santiago said.
So starting in December, the Red Cross began a series of monthly distributions of boxes containing one 50 watt solar panel with a lithium battery and instructions for installation. The only criteria was that a person had to show they had a medical need.
“The equipment comes ready for use and our volunteers explain use and maintenance,” said Puerto Rico Red Cross spokesperson Rosemarie Valdez.
One recipient was Oscar Rivera, 64, who served 26 years in the Army in the Vietnam and Gulf wars. As a medic, he saw a lot of death which has resulted in repeated flashbacks. Desperate to sleep more than three hours, he obtained a sleep machine. After the hurricane swept through the island, Rivera was left without power.
“I was thinking I have to wait for the government to fix the power, it’s been a nightmare,” he said. “A friend of mine got one of the solar panels and told me about it. I called the Red Cross and person in charge and put me on the list.”
Now that he can at least power his machine, Rivera says he can tolerate the wait for an electrical hookup.
Residents who have been selected to receive panels were overjoyed because they will have a piece of equipment that should endure during future disasters.
“I had someone who cried, hugged me, kissed me and was just ecstatic when we called to say we were going to have another distribution event,” Santiago said. “It’s groundbreaking for us because we are specifically giving an item to the community that focuses on a specific need.”