SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On September 20, 2017, a Category 5 hurricane named Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. According to a Harvard University study, Hurricane Maria killed 4,600 people even though the official death toll was 64. This natural disaster also destroyed many homes, businesses and communities and left most Puerto Ricans without electricity, food and fresh water from September until June. This article will discuss how a class from Drexel University worked with the organization Plenitud PR to install rainwater collection systems in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
About the Class
In December 2019, Steve Dolph, Ph.D., taught a Community-Based Learning course called “Disaster and Resilience in Puerto Rico.” Steve Dolph is an assistant teaching professor of Spanish at Drexel University’s Department of Global Studies and Modern Languages. When Hurricane Maria happened, he had just begun teaching at the university with a specific interest in environmental vulnerability and environmental resilience. The hurricane inspired him to teach a course on the island.
As a part of this class, he and his students visited Plenitud PR, a nonprofit educational farm dedicated to service and environmental sustainability in Puerto Rico. A group of graduates from the University of Florida, who wanted to educate communities about how to use resources in a sustainable way, created this organization in 2008.
Professor Dolph decided to partner with Plenitud PR because he had a personal connection with the organization. In 2018, he visited Puerto Rico for three days to observe the organization’s work and meet the people on the farm. Then, after a few conversations, he came up with a course about environmental disasters with a focus on rainwater harvesting and filtration.
While the organization has hosted students from several major universities, Professor Dolph said this “was the first one where there was a full curriculum developed that included a pre-departure course…an on-site intensive, rainwater harvesting and filtration workshop and then, post-return project development in collaboration with the organization.”
For example, before visiting Puerto Rico, students had the opportunity to take a class called “After Maria.” This course explored how the social, economic and political structures of Puerto Rico worsened the consequences of Hurricane Maria.
“We looked at school systems. We looked at agriculture. We looked at political representation” said the professor. “And in every case, the connecting idea was that the swift move to privatize previously publicly owned institutions was making the situation worse and not better on the island.”
This knowledge helped the students prepare for their trip in which they helped develop rainwater collection systems in Puerto Rico.
Importance of Rainwater Collection Systems in Puerto Rico
According to Raymond Balaguer, the liaison on the trip to Puerto Rico, “the purpose of rainwater collection systems is to collect as much rainwater as possible to provide the people in a household or in a building with a renewable water source.” In times when natural disasters wipe out resources, having access to rainwater collection systems can be the difference between life and death, according to students on the trip.
However, people cannot safely consume water from rainwater collection systems without filtration. Rainwater must first pass through rocks to remove solids from the liquid. Then, it passes through sand to remove bacteria and dissolved solids from the rainwater. Finally, the water must pass through biochar. Biochar is an activated charcoal that emerges when biological plant material burns. It helps purify water by removing any remaining solids or bacteria before consumption.
Drexel students helped produce the second batch of biochar at Plenitud PR. They did this by gathering and cutting dried coffee tree branches into smaller pieces. Then, they placed these pieces with kindling into a metal barrel and burned the wood. To ensure that oxygen did not interact with the burning wood, they used the top-lit, up-draft method. This left them with biochar at the end of the process.
According to Raymond Balaguer, it can cost about $350 or $400 to install rainwater harvesting systems for a family of four. However, there may be annual maintenance fees depending on whether or not something breaks. While installing rainwater collection systems in Puerto Rico can be expensive for those who are especially vulnerable, they are a fairly inexpensive way to provide fresh water to communities around the world.
Impact of the Trip to Puerto Rico
This Drexel University trip to Puerto Rico had a profound impact on the students. According to Professor Dolph, many students felt overwhelmed and supercharged emotionally when they first arrived in Puerto Rico. The course was fast-moving and physically demanding because the people in Plenitud PR are very much dedicated to being productive and meeting deadlines.
However, as the week progressed, the trip ended up altering the students’ academic and professional careers. According to Professor Dolph, “one student who was on the trip is now working at Plenitud as an Americorps Vista doing logistics for the organization. Another student who is an engineer is doing sustainable design and intentional community design as part of their senior project. Another student who had an interest in public health is now at the University of Pennsylvania studying the very same things that we were working on the island. Two other students created an entire curriculum around ecofeminism based on conversations that they had with…one of the founders there. And so, it had a major impact, not just at the moment, but it continues to shape the students’ personal and professional lives for many months after our return.”
This trip also had an impact on the people of Puerto Rico. According to Raymond Balaguer, “it was very inspiring and surprising to see students from so far away in such a different context be so interested in something that’s so ours.”
This shows how this trip was a success in more ways than one. Not only did it bring two diverse groups of people together to achieve a common goal, but it also served as an inspiration to global institutions as to how they can change the world for the better.
– Rida Memon
Photo: Provided by Professor Steve Dolph