Hurricanes Hit, so Ph.D. Candidate Gets to Work in Puerto Rico
Bali Quintero’s goal: Weaving sustainability into reconstruction efforts
Ph.D. candidate Braulio "Bali" Quintero was working in his native Puerto Rico this past summer when he prepared to fly back to Syracuse in early September to defend his dissertation at ESF.
Then Hurricane Irma slammed the Caribbean and southern Florida, knocking out power, flight schedules and Quintero's plans. So he rescheduled his flight for Sept. 20 - the day Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 145 mph.
Instead of flying back to the Northeast, he and his family (his parents, his wife and the couple's four dogs) hunkered down and listened to the wind howling for 16 hours outside his parents' home on the western side of the island. When they were finally able to emerge from the house - a concrete structure that was not damaged - Quintero got to work.
Operating within the non-profit research organization he founded five years ago with his wife, marine biologist Dr. Stacey M. Williams, and a friend, anthropologist Dr. Ryan A. Mann-Hamilton, Quintero got involved in immediate relief efforts. He and his colleagues focused on helping to distribute basic provisions such as donated food and water to people whose homes had been destroyed by the 10th-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record.
"We are a small organization but we work with a lot of volunteers," Bali said of the Institute for Socio-Ecological Research (ISER Caribe), which works with local communities in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean to develop community-led stewardship of natural resources with a goal of preserving the environment and empowering local residents. "The strength of our organization is our commitment to work with local communities and volunteer groups," he said.
Now, about a month after the hurricane hit, ISER Caribe has begun focusing on weaving sustainability into the relief efforts. With an active fundraising campaign underway, ISER Caribe started supplying residents in the hard-hit western coastal and mountainside communities with water filters to cut down on the amount of plastic being used - such as single-use water bottles. The organization is also distributing solar-powered illumination and mobile device-charging units as a way to insert renewable energies into the recovery effort.
"We want to avoid unsustainable relief," Quintero said. "There's plenty of water in Puerto Rico. People can go out and harvest it themselves. We were giving them a way to make it safe to drink."
He said the destruction of more than 80 percent of the island's electric power infrastructure has focused attention on the vulnerability of a society with large-scale dependence on imported fossil fuels and centralized power generation facilities. "We have to move toward energy independence, rely less on imported fossil fuel, develop a resilient renewable energy industry based on microgrids, energy co-ops and decentralized generation, among other things," he said.
Quintero also wants to avoid unsustainable reconstruction.
"Whatever was destroyed by the hurricane, we have to rebuild it in a more resilient way, especially housing," he said. "We expect the housing codes to change. They're going to have to."
ISER Caribe does not have the capacity to begin rebuilding, but he said the organization is working to start the transition to a more sustainable and resilient future. "We want to be there to say, 'Here are solar panels. Here is how to install them on your house. Here's how to get your house off the grid. We want to offer sustainable solutions."
An estimated 250,000 homes were destroyed in Puerto Rico. In addition, roads and bridges need to be rebuilt, along with the electronic and telecommunication infrastructure, and commercial and industrial facilities.
"I feel as if ESF has a great opportunity to insert itself into this new Puerto Rico some of us want to build. There are engineering needs - we need sustainable materials. There are opportunities for ecological research. Forests and watersheds have been heavily impacted. And there are social aspects to be considered."
Quintero is ready to finish the paperwork and defend his dissertation in energy economics. He is the last ESF Ph.D. student to be advised by now-retired Dr. Charles Hall. His focus is econometrics, the application of statistical models to economics. His doctoral research studies the relationship between energy consumption and economic production.
His trip back to campus is now postponed until the spring. Quintero is philosophical about the change in plans. "Hurricanes happen," he said.
He and Williams live in a valley in the southwestern portion of the island, and the location protected their wood-frame home. He said he took the hurricane warnings seriously and made sure he was prepared with food and water.
"I study models. I study uncertainty," he said. "I learned that very well at ESF. I knew it was coming."
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