Traveler’s Notebook

Clean Water Is Focus of Trip to Puerto Rico With Group That Helped With NJ’s Sandy Recovery

By JON COEN | Nov 01, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Lovell Implementing a cistern with multiple filters in Puerto Rico. Waves for Water's Caribbean Hurricane Initiative is all about getting people clean drinking water.
Waves for Water Caribbean Hurricane Initiative
(Video by: Waves for Water)

You have to imagine that this week, there were some pretty emotional reflections on that bastard of a storm five years back. There are a lot of families who were affected, and many are dealing with horrific memories of rising water, a crooked contractor who took off with their deposit, the loss of irreplaceable family heirlooms, and probably quite a few stiffings by an insurance company.

But I certainly hope it brought some folks good memories: neighbors helping neighbors, epic fundraisers, people who took in families for months on end, or the busloads of folks from North Jersey, Ohio, and New Hampshire that showed up to volunteer. It was perhaps the greatest example of the human spirit our area has ever seen.

I guess it was fitting then, this week, that I should have the opportunity to do volunteer work in Puerto Rico, which was brutally lashed by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20.

Before the bay had fully receded after Sandy, Jon Rose, founder of a surfer-led humanitarian group called Waves for Water, had landed in New Jersey. Rose had long understood that surfers know coastal areas very well. Years of following waves have afforded them expansive networks of contacts, and they also happen to be very passionate about living on the coast. He immediately formed two roundtable groups, one for New York and one for New Jersey.

The surfers and activists who already had the ball rolling in the Long Beach Island region, rallying around Jetty’s “Unite Rebuild” movement (the one that raised $340,000 for Sandy relief) were invited to the table. Rose didn’t just offer the tools and knowledge for rebuilding, he laid out a plan for how we could restore and become community leaders in the long run, giving surfers and young people a voice we never had before. Maybe it was our easily defined geography, but we became the poster child for his ideas. Today many of those who were voiceless before the storm have become elected to local governing bodies and school boards, and leaders in the business community. I was fortunate enough to work alongside and watch it happen.

Last week, I was part of a Clean Water Corps crew working on the Caribbean Hurricane Initiative in Puerto Rico. Under Field Operations Director Rob McQueen, a former Army Special Operations commander, I got to work with Otto Flores, one of Puerto Rico’s global surfers and now Patagonia ambassador. We were joined by a core of very well-educated surfers from San Juan, Peru’s big wave charger Gabriel Villaran, former Army Calvary Scout Pat Baird and Waves for Water’s resident photographer, Ethan Lovell, of Los Angeles.

Then, of course, we also hooked up with the Bronx's iconic Richard Colón, aka “Crazy Legs,” of the original New York B Boy Rock Steady Crew who pioneered the intersection of breakdancing, street art and hip hop. Being of Puerto Rican descent, he is deeply committed to seeing the island return to its former self, using his profile to raise funds and work with Waves for Water, getting out in the country to distribute water filters and teach folks about the dangers of unfiltered water. Legs actually lives in New Jersey now to be close to his family, but I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone.

Waves for Water’s Sandy Relief initiative here was a bit out of the box for the organization, as it was based on overall recovery. Unlike other disasters, New Jersey didn’t have a drinking water problem. But we learned a lot about Rose’s techniques as a “guerilla humanitarian group.” Whereas larger government agencies are tied to policies and red tape, W4W is able to run unobstructed operations and see effective results quickly.

Though that technique was similar, this mission in Puerto Rico was more focused – to provide people clean drinking water. The water infrastructure has been compromised and tap water may be contaminated by bacteria from dead animals or feces. When I arrived, there had already been 74 confirmed cases of leptospirosis, several of which proved fatal. Some Puerto Ricans who have no water to their homes are collecting it from contaminated spring and streams. Others are at risk of bacteria straight from the tap.

That’s not to mention the challenges where 80 percent of the territory still has no power. Much of San Juan is running on generators. Structures that were never built to code were destroyed. Most of the traffic lights are out. Donated food is being prepared in makeshift relief centers to feed much of the population. The humidity is brutal. But families are piecing their lives back together.

Waves for Water has effective fundraising. Small personal donations matched with corporate contributions and surf industry support enable the organization to buy specific Sawyer water filters that filter water down to one micron, sifting out dangerous bacteria.

The objective of our Clean Water Corps group was to make contacts, identify trouble areas and teach communities how to use the filters. It’s not just randomly passing out truckloads of filters. The education is just as important as the tool. Community leaders are taught how to implement the filters and then sent out to disseminate the information and filters.

Puerto Rico has vast underground springs and flowing creeks that can all be filtered. One MVP filter system ($50 on the website) can clean 170 gallons per day, enough for 100 people. And yet, Walmart is being praised for redirecting supplies and getting six million single use bottles of water per week to the Island (which they are selling). And what happens to all those empty bottles? Which model seems more sustainable?

W4W is running operations out of San Juan, taking meetings with partners and donors and traveling into the field. Outreach days were not unlike Puerto Rican surf trips – breakfast at the panaderia, driving to different areas, searching, and using social media. But instead of getting waves, we did our best to get people clean drinking water. And then there’s a stop for cold drinks. It’s pretty amazing that you can be in a disaster area, sweating all day, talking about potential bacterial epidemics, but if you’re with a good crew, you can still have such a good time.

We visited the coastal town of Guayama, where the ocean had simply swept away the waterfront area, and Corozal, where the school had been turned into a community relief center. The crew taught rural people, who were piping water from the hills to the highway, how to use the filters.

We also spent a good amount of time on the northwest coast, in Aguadilla and Rincon, areas where many LBI folks visit and/or have second homes. This is a celebrated coast, loaded with world-class surf spots. While these regions face serious infrastructure obstacles and the complexity of rebuilding tourism, something as basic as clean water is still an issue.

Donations can be made to the Caribbean Relief Initiative.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Neal J Roberts | Nov 08, 2017 11:55

Thanks to Jon Coen for his descriptive and enlightening report in The SandPaper on Nov. 1 [“Clean Water Is Focus of Trip to Puerto Rico With Group That Helped With NJ’s Sandy Recovery”]. His contrast of the storm-inflicted suffering, both in Ocean County’s experience five years ago and now a thousand times worse in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, with the above-natural rise of human compassion in neighborly love, brought to mind the one who made famous the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” May God bless Waves for Water and all those with whom they labor, for the sake of comforting the afflicted. And may the Apostle Paul’s words to the ancient Corinithians ring true: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

Neal Roberts

Lanoka Harbor

If you wish to comment, please login.