“I figured that we lived on a tropical island,” Ramirez said, “so going solar seemed like a good idea at the time.” Ramirez’s good idea is now a one-stop shop for community residents, who often come by to freeze their water, charge their phones, or do their laundry. The hotel lost four solar panels in Hurricane Maria, but Ramirez was able to quickly replace them after the storm passed.
Like many intact hotels, Casa Sol also houses journalists, FEMA contractors, charity workers, and storm victims who lost everything. But unlike most other hotels, residents at Casa Sol can grab hot showers, use WiFi, and even watch the news now and then when the battery is charged. “Just like everyone here, I try to do my part,” Ramirez told me. “It’s not a lot, but it’s what we have.”
Most places in Puerto Rico don’t have a Casa Sol nearby, and most residents don’t have the means to purchase solar batteries. But Ramirez’s example shows the simple advantages that investment in resilience and renewable energy can have in a disaster, a need that will only be more pressing in the years to come. The most ominous portent for Puerto Rico is that experts don’t view this extreme hurricane season and multiple direct hits to the island as aberrations, but as previews of the new normal in the near future of a changing climate.
David Ortiz, the executive director of the Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, says that climate change has already been wreaking havoc on the island, and that it now creates a positive feedback loop with related environmental terrors. “We didn’t need a hurricane to say climate change exists, because we’ve been seeing it already,” Ortiz notes. “I think people are learning that they need to better prepare themselves. Folks aren’t understanding that climate change is real. But they are now.”
The impacts on Puerto Rico in the past two years alone look like something out of a disaster movie. With changes in ocean temperature and acidity, corals in the island’s barrier reef have suffered bleaching. Beaches have eroded, and wetlands have been degraded. Agriculture has suffered three straight bad seasons, and in 2015 the territory faced a severe drought that forced authorities to implement widespread water rationing. And now Irma and Maria have brought the message home: Here, sustainability is literally survival.
For Ortiz, in the wake of federal decisions that have left the island disadvantaged in almost every way and local decisions that have worked against sustainability almost at every turn, the onus is on Puerto Rican citizens to ensure their own survival. “We’re all victims helping victims,” Ortiz told me. “You’re suffering too, but at the very same time you’re leading a relief effort. It’s hard. It’s mentally exhausting, and it’s also physically exhausting.”
“This could take us backwards, but this is an opportunity to move forward,” he continued. “We can redefine ourselves as a people, as an island, and as a country, and recognize that we live in a different world now.”