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CMU students raise money for Puerto Rico, following with visit

Credit: Tiffany Taulton Credit: Tiffany Taulton

Over spring break, a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, a group of 13 undergraduate and graduate students from Carnegie Mellon led by Tiffany Taulton, a masters student in Heinz majoring in public policy, visited Puerto Rico on an "alternative spring break" trip. Prior to the trip, the students had raised over $4,000 in donations to help the island in its ongoing recovery efforts. As summarized in several posts from Taulton on the CMU in Puerto Rico Facebook page, the students on the trip had the chance to learn from and work with various groups and people working on environmental-protection initiatives on the island. For fun, they went sightseeing (in Ponce and Old San Juan) and ziplining.

The group spent their first full day on the island in the city of Caguas visiting a local nonprofit collective called Urbe Apie, whose mission is, according to Taulton, "to develop the cultural and economic wealth of the community through compassion." The group spent the day learning about their work as well as touring the city of Caguas itself.

Urbe Apie does a variety of charity work, including needle exchanges and clinical testing to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis, opening soup kitchens, providing free or cheap clothing for those in need, providing temporary housing, teaching art and yoga classes, and operating a community garden. Over a breakfast of vegetable omelets, bread, and fried Vienna sausages, the students got a lesson in the economic history of Puerto Rico from members of the organization. They also did volunteer work in Urbe Apie’s community garden and learned about the benefits of the plants being grown there.

Another organization the students visited was Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas. "We had the great honor to be received by the founder, Alexis Massol, who won the Goldman Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize for the environment) in 2002," Taulton said.

Casa Pueblo specializes in environmental advocacy, including blocking the development of mines in the area, protesting the construction of an oil pipeline, and working toward the goal of making the community 50 percent solar powered by 2020. In addition, "Casa Pueblo cultivates [science, culture, and community] through their work, arts programs, and collaborations with schools."

The students also volunteered with Coalición Restauración de Ecosistemas Santurcinos (CRES) based in the Santurce area of San Juan, which "is dedicated to protecting the sand dunes of Santurce and restoring the marine ecosystem." CRES was founded on a mission to save the coral reefs around Santurce, but the founders gradually realized that saving the coral was impossible without also protecting the land, because land-based pollution would flow into the oceans during storms and destroy the coral. Thus, they started working to collect trash and create green spaces in the city, including a community garden.

"CRES is now working hard to provide permanent protection to the area by buying land where they can and increasing public appreciation for green space where they can’t," Taulton said. From the founders of CRES, the students learned how to create in-ground compost beds, transplant trees, and make a rainwater collection cistern.

The Carnegie Mellon students had the chance for the second year in a row to meet with students and faculty from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez (UPRM). They learned about the challenges of implementing community-scale microgrids — ranging from the difficulties of building local partnerships to the software and other technical components used to implement, monitor and analyze the grids, to the legal and political issues facing the implementation process — before visiting three communities the UPRM students and faculty were working with.

The first community they visited was Anasco Playa, which has frequently been on the frontlines of environmental and social policy battles. These include leatherback turtle egg poaching, the building of cell phone towers on Anasco Playa’s town-center beaches, sand mining, and the reopening of the community school. "It is now fighting pharmaceutical companies from dumping biowaste in the river that leads to ocean, and developers that want to get rid of the local population to build high-rise beachfront condos that will erode the sand dunes that protect the town from being flooded and serve as the nesting ground for the endangered turtles," Taulton wrote.

The second community was Anasco Corcovada, which is notable for remaining on its independent water system that arose back in the 1950s when the central government of Puerto Rico was not able to provide running water to everyone, while most other cities connected themselves to the central supply when the central government built up its water system. The solar-powered independent water system in the community enabled the town to turn on running water for itself and surrounding communities just two days after Hurricane Maria hit, while municipalities relying on government water were not able to get clean water for months. In addition to having an independent water system, Anasco Corcovada wants to become energy-independent and more resilient in the face of future storms through solar energy panels installed on homes.

The third community the students visited was La Salud, which was still visibly recovering from Hurricane Maria. The historical roots of La Salud spring from a 1950's U.S. initiative to industrialize Puerto Rico, which uprooted many farmers from their rural homes to work in newly-established textile factories. However, these workers didn’t have proper housing, so they built homes on land around the factories — and never formally put their names on the land titles. This became a major issue after Hurricane Maria when residents tried to claim FEMA assistance but did not have legal land ownership of the family homes that they had lived in for generations. Although nonprofit organizations have stepped in for some of the most vulnerable residents in La Salud, "judging from the number of damaged homes we saw...[there] is still a lot of need for help," Taulton wrote.

For Taulton and the other students in the group, this spring break trip was an opportunity to learn from those on the frontlines of shaping Puerto Rico’s future, and help with the ongoing recovery efforts where they could.