Vieques Community Workshop on Social Recovery

By Oscar Ojeda-Cana and Hilyarit Santiago-Robles


Between January 15 and 16, 2018, on the island of Vieques, the Community Workshop on Social Recovery was held. More than 30 people attended from different fields, which created a transdisciplinary and enriching environment. Attendees ranged from active residents to non-profit organizations, both local and external, and private companies guided by a socio-environmental commitment. Governmental employees, such as the Director of Municipal Emergency Management and a federal employee from the Department of Health and Human Services were also in attendance. In this workshop, different conversations were held regarding the history of Vieques, how it was affected after Hurricane Maria, and several initiatives for a new energy system in Vieques.

Robert Rabin narrates the history of vieques

Robert Rabin narrates the history of vieques

Robert Rabin, general manager in Radio Vieques, an expert activist, received us with an exciting and synthesized, yet holistic, history of Vieques, its rich cultural heritage, and its “victory” against the most powerful army in human history (the U.S. military). The morning continued with a presentation by Dr. Cecilio Ortiz García, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez and co-founder of the INESI organization. The National Island Energy and Sustainability Institute (INESI) is an organization that connects the eleven campuses of the University of Puerto Rico on energy and sustainability related issues. Dr. Ortiz-García opened with an explanation of how the acceptance and social innovation of renewable technologies for an effective energy transition lies in the fact that this technology -and preparation for its maintenance- is accessible to all socio-economic strata.

Then, the Director of Emergency Management in Vieques spoke about the extraordinary damage that occurred in Vieques after the hurricane. Some of the challenging experiences included 60 to 80 days or more without a continuous ferry (only one running a day), the lack of communication with the big island, and not being able to produce food or energy on Vieques. Residents also had difficulties equipping houses with access to water due to the lack of energy, difficulty with transporting patients since the hospital was damaged, lack of a pharmaceuticals, and access to only one doctor for all of the island. He shared how the greatest complication turned out to be having to address several of these problems simultaneously while overcoming communication difficulties and without immediate access to resources. This proved especially difficult when initiatives were inhibited by the central government bureaucracy in conjunction with administrative instability of government agencies, especially PREPA.

In the midst of the discussion between other participants, such as Mercy Corps, attendees shared perspectives and best practices, met through pizza and coffee, and proposed community liaison strategies and proposals. The workshop, organized by Footprint, had the purpose of creating an environment to develop solutions. The company Hivecube had the task of presenting a solar-powered container home as a tool to mitigate energy instability. The community and design experts gave constructive criticism for better implementation of the technology. The federal representative from the Department of Health and Human Services informed the community of the beginnings of a medical implementation plan in the Fajardo region and how a collaborative network between hospitals and diagnostic and treatment centers (CDT) was being cultivated. Vieques does not need to wait for a hurricane to lose lives; its island-state municipality is not self-sufficient in providing basic services, which keeps it constantly vulnerable--practically all food, energy, water, and tools, come from the Mother Island.

The workshop concluded with a presentation by a recent graduate of UPR-Mayagüez, Oscar Ojeda-Cana, who succinctly spoke of the Oasis of Light (Solar Oasis) as a tool of resilience. The concept is based on a plan of identification and strategic community engagement, training workshops, and implementation of a design adapted to the community. The goal of it is to be a mobile educational tool and to provide an immediate response to lack of electricity. The Solar Oasis also hopes to encourage an environment of exchange and collaboration within the home and community, with the vision of developing a micro-network to decentralize and reduce dependence on grid-tied energy . He presented information provided by UPRM electrical engineers, which estimate that a relatively minimal investment ($7,000-7,500) can finance a 2 kWh emergency solar system with 5 kWh storage, capable of operating a simple refrigerator, pair of lights, and even an installed A/C. The Oasis demonstrates that energy transitions do not happen overnight and require extensive participation in order to make sustainable technologies affordable to all socio-economic strata.

 
The exterior of the Fortin Conde de Mirasol in Vieques, site of the workshop

The exterior of the Fortin Conde de Mirasol in Vieques, site of the workshop