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Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rica in September 2017 - Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Powering up Puerto Rico

In the wake of a tragic natural disaster, faculty member discusses sustainable humanitarian relief and rebuilding infrastructure.

October 18, 2017

By Tim Carroll

As Puerto Rico works to recover from Hurricane Maria, many experts have drawn attention to the systemic infrastructure problems that have severely delayed the United States territory’s ability to restore power and clean water to its citizens. Tesla’s Elon Musk recently came forward to offer a scalable system that could bring new technology to Puerto Rico to upgrade its power grid, but at what cost?

Aaron Brown, Ph.D., MSU Denver associate professor of mechanical-engineering technology and humanitarian engineering program advisor, addresses the issue and outlines what should be considered when developing a comprehensive humanitarian relief strategy to tackle short-term and long-term needs in a sustainable way.

A before photo (taken in May 2017) and after image showcasing the damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Satellite image ©2017 DigitalGlobe.

When you heard about devastation in Puerto Rico regarding its energy infrastructure, what immediately came to mind for you? 

My first reaction was, “what a terrible situation.” I thought especially of the impact this would have for the more vulnerable people ? those in hospitals, for example. I visited Puerto Rico this past April with a contingent of MSU Denver faculty for an international conference. It was my second trip to the island. In both visits, I found it to be a wonderful place with warm people and lots of beauty. We have several faculty who are from Puerto Rico or have close ties to the island. They helped coordinate the visit, and I can imagine their families and friends have been greatly impacted by this event.

My other reaction was that this may be a great opportunity to bring the latest technologies to Puerto Rico. With the infrastructure damage they have experienced, there is a window of opportunity to rebuild. Through a systematic and holistic approach, a more resilient and efficient system could be established. This could really benefit the people of Puerto Rico and may do so less expensively while providing even better service. Puerto Rico has the potential to be a model for how new energy systems can be implemented. We are teaching this kind of engineering approach to our students in the Sustainable Systems Engineering program at MSU Denver.

What do you think about Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s proposal to bring his sustainable-energy grid to Puerto Rico? 

This crisis has created a window of opportunity. Tesla has the technologies and is willing to share them (all of their designs are open source, for example). Elon Musk has demonstrated a passion for doing things that make a difference for our planet. I imagine he sees the situation in Puerto Rico as unfortunate but also a chance to display how his technologies can work.

Are there some makeshift humanitarian engineering strategies that could be put in place to address short-term and long-term needs? What do you recommend? 

The engineering response immediately following a disaster should look very different than a long-term strategy. It’s analogous to an ER patient where you have to do triage to get stability before long-term care is put in place. In the aftermath of an event like this, there are crucial items that need to be addressed such as access to clean water, food and shelter. Humanitarian engineering encompasses both the disaster-relief side of problem-solving as well as designing long-term solutions.

Our students in the humanitarian engineering club are working on distributing pamphlets, which give simple instructions on how to build your own water filter using readily available materials in the area to the residents in Puerto Rico. We did a similar project after the earthquakes in Nepal in 2015. This fits in with the short-term, immediate-needs solutions that humanitarian engineering can provide. Elon Musk’s proposal falls under the long-term infrastructure-rebuilding area, which is also an aspect of humanitarian engineering.

Brown leads engineering students through a lesson on the MSU Denver campus.

What are the most common misperceptions or mistakes people make when it comes to humanitarian relief?

For many community projects, a big mistake that is made is not involving the people in the decision-making process. Many projects fail because they don’t take into account the culture of the communities and how the technologies or engineering will be used. There is a term called “appropriate technology,” which encompasses this idea of participatory decision-making. I believe Tesla and Elon Musk will do their project the right way by meeting with the stakeholders and asking if this is what they want. By doing a proper assessment, one can make sure the right approach for the conditions is chosen, while really involving the people of Puerto Rico in the process. From the outside, it looks like a great match, but community input is really important in these circumstances.

There are false perceptions that natural disasters can be good for communities as they force citizens to address long-standing infrastructure problems. However, most research demonstrates that the economic and social costs far outweigh the long-term benefits. What do you think?

Portrait of Aaron Brown, an associate professor in MSU Denver's Department of Mechanical Engineering Technology.It is true that in some instances communities are able to rebuild with better infrastructure, but the cost can be really high. The needed capital (both in time and money) has to come from a new source. For this reason, I really believe that, when there is an opportunity to do so, a systems approach to infrastructure is best because it can be built with resiliency and sustainability in mind. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable communities often don’t have the resources, and so when a disaster hits a community like this, the repercussions are amplified.

Should humanitarian aid come with strings attached to prevent dependence that may only come with subsequent natural disasters (building codes, redundancy of power systems, infrastructure education, etc.)? 

There has been a lot of discussion, research, thought around this subject. One study measured the outcomes from giving cash to residents in rural areas of Kenya and letting them manage finances independently. The recipients of this aid generally had better outcomes and improved well-being by managing their own aid than when the aid agencies mandated how it would be spent. People in poverty aren’t usually in that situation because they’re lazy or don’t make good decisions. There is a whole set of reasons that have nothing to do with a person’s will that thrust people into poverty. Many of us that live in the U.S. and haven’t traveled to developing countries have a hard time understanding these dynamics. We also must consider local conditions such as governance because corrupt or ineffective government institutions can play a large role in how effectively humanitarian aid is distributed and received.

Aftermath of hurricane Maria on the mountains of the island of Puerto Rico.

It appears that power and clean water are the biggest issues of need in Puerto Rico. Is there a way to address both of these needs in a combined approach? 

There is a lot of interrelationship between water, food and energy. This is a central theme for the U.N. sustainable-development model. This relates to the systems approach for engineering. For example, more-efficient agriculture methods can lead to better crop yield and less water waste. Also, it should be recognized that most forms of energy production require water in the process. I think the question we should be asking is: How do we better manage these interrelated items? This relates not only to engineering but also policy-making. Our Sustainable Systems Engineering program incorporates this kind of holistic thinking (including coursework on policymaking) because we need engineers who can look at the large picture to solve big issues. The challenges we are facing (such as in Puerto Rico) are intricate and need to be approached holistically.

What is the most realistic approach to get citizens their basic needs in the short term? Is it better to address the issues on a house-by-house basis or should solutions be more focused at town or city levels? 

I think the best solutions are ones that are appropriate for the local conditions. Each case is unique, and we can’t use a cookie-cutter methodology for solving issues. There are lots of factors that influence how to approach these situations, such as governance, community resources, geography, etc.

If people want to donate to a humanitarian relief cause, what is the most sustainable method for doing so? 

There are lots of organizations that are doing good work all over the world. Some organizations are better than others. It’s a great question to ask, “Will my donation actually benefit the people it’s intended for?”

To help people navigate this, there are some organizations that rate charities on criteria such as tax status, expenses, transparency and accountability, etc. Of course, this rating system sometimes can be controversial as well. Interestingly, a recent study explored how people view charity based on their political leanings. Ultimately, I think donors have to decide what causes they would like to give to, and a little research about organizations doing work around those causes can help direct their donations. Most of the NGO agencies doing aid have web portals where money can be donated pretty easily. 

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