By Bob Smietana
As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria approaches, disaster relief groups are still at work in Puerto Rico, helping with recovery efforts.
And at least one group is using solar power to aid with those efforts.
North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse plans to install 100 solar power systems in a rural part of the island, where the power supply was spotty even before Hurricane Maria.
Working in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, the Christian nonprofit is installing systems in the community of Yabucoa that can run a small refrigerator, fans, a charger, and electric lights. They’re primarily serving folks who need refrigeration for their medication.
“Most of the folks we are serving had medical issues—they are elderly or have children with special needs,” says Zach Spau, solar energy program manager for Samaritan’s Purse.
Sprau says the nonprofit works with local churches to identify people who are most in need of electrical power. So far, 44 systems have been installed, according to Samaritan’s Purse.
The group has used solar power in other parts of the world but not in Puerto Rico before, says Sprau. He and other staffers are working to get as many systems installed as they can before the hurricane season begins again. If the program works, they hope to expand the number of systems.
Families get training on how to operate the system and how to disassemble it in case of a hurricane. Each system has four 100-watt solar panels that can be easily removed from the roof in case of bad weather, say Sprau.
“The only tool you need to get the panels off is a half-inch socket driver,” he says.
Sprau first saw the potential for using solar power in disaster relief while working for Samaritan’s Purse in Haiti during a previous disaster. After he and his wife returned from that country, he enrolled in a graduate program in appropriate technology at Appalachian State, where he focused on solar power and renewable energy.
After that, he did solar power installations in North Carolina before going to work for Samaritan’s Purse to head up their solar program. Sprau and his wife plan to spend at least two years working in Puerto Rico on disaster relief. They arrived in March.
Working in disaster relief is an unexpected path for Sprau. He graduated from Appalachia State, where he studied music and psychology. He stuck around while his then-girlfriend and now wife finished school.
To pay the bill, he started working at nearby Samaritan’s Purse, eventually landing a position doing logistics for field workers. After a stint in Haiti, he went to grad school in hopes of moving into disaster relief work.
“I went to school for a job that didn’t exist,” he says.
Sprau says he’s glad he stuck around after college. Things worked out pretty well, he says.
“It was worth it,” says Sprau.
Samaritans Purse has about 40 staff members in Puerto Rico, says Tom Ovington, ministry program manager. They were on the ground soon after Hurricane Maria hit and plan to be there for several years doing recovery work.
Rebuilding is still going slow. And there’s a lot of concern as this year’s hurricane season approaches, he says.
“There’s still a lot of nervousness in the country,” he said.
The nonprofit announced plans in May to rehab more than 390 homes and 55 churches on the island. Since last year, Samaritan’s Purse says its provided assistance to more than 70,000 families with the help of about 200 local churches.
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.