How being prepared for hurricane season starts with solar power in one Puerto Rico town

Community leader Angel Colon with the solar panels atop a building in Daguao, Puerto Rico.PlayJoshua Hoyos/ABC News
WATCH How solar power is helping a Puerto Rican town

Angel Colon’s memory of what happened on Sept. 20, 2017, is still fresh in his mind. Standing on the rooftop of a one-story community building, he describes what happened to a nearby basketball court.

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“The hurricane moved the metal roof from there, lifted it in the air and threw it to the corner all rolled up as if it was a cake,” said Colon, as a temporary blue roof, stamped FEMA, now serves as a replacement.

Hurricane Maria's impact on Puerto Rico reinforced something he already knew -- in times of trouble, communities comes together.

Colon, who serves as head of the Social and Cultural Development Committee in the town of Daguao, paired up with the San Juan-based organization Resilient Power Puerto Rico to come up with a solution to problems from future storms.

Resilient Power Puerto Rico raises money from private donors and organizations to buy discounted and overstocked solar panels and install them at community centers at no cost to the local entities. There are currently 50 planned projects throughout the island.

Daguao’s community organization attained its solar panels thanks to Resilient Power Puerto Rico.

Solar panels atop a community organization building in Daguao, Puerto Rico.Joshua Hoyos/ABC News
Solar panels atop a community organization building in Daguao, Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reports that 99.1 percent of the island is back on the electrical grid, leaving over 13,000 customers still without power. In an interview with ABC News in March, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the entire island would have power before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1.

“We are eight months after the hurricane and there are still communities in the mountains that don’t have power,” Terrasa-Soler said.

The total collapse of telecommunications on the island, and its near complete isolation, drove Daguao's community of 2,200 people closer together.

Members of the Social and Cultural Development Committee of Daguao stand alongside a member of the Resilient Power Puerto Rico team.Joshua Hoyos/ABC News
Members of the Social and Cultural Development Committee of Daguao stand alongside a member of the Resilient Power Puerto Rico team.

Community leader Angel Colon with the solar panels atop a building in Daguao, Puerto Rico.Joshua Hoyos/ABC News
Community leader Angel Colon with the solar panels atop a building in Daguao, Puerto Rico.

“The community is what saved lives here. Individual differences didn’t matter because if they didn’t help each other, they wouldn’t be alive,” said Maria Lopez, the secretary of the Social and Cultural Development Committee.

This grassroots group, active in the Daguao barrio of Naguabo since 1987, used the hurricane to innovate.

“We decided, let’s take the path of Maria and Irma ... and say we are going to focus on the hurricane paths because those are most likely the most impacted communities,” said Jose Terrasa-Soler, the secretary of Resilient Power Puerto Rico.

Resilient Power Puerto Rico is modeled after a group that supported the Rockaways community in Queens, New York, after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Community leader Angel Colon next to a TESLA Powerwall battery, which stores solar energy.Joshua Hoyos/ABC News
Community leader Angel Colon next to a TESLA Powerwall battery, which stores solar energy.

The power collected by the 14 donated solar panels atop a multi-purpose room is stored in two rechargeable lithium-ion TESLA Powerwall batteries that allows for a small microgrid. The cost of the microgrid at the location is $25,000.

Daguao got back on the electrical grid in March, having lost it when Hurricane Irma passed near the island before Hurricane Maria. The local kindergarten to eighth grade school got back on the electrical grid on Tuesday, days before the start of hurricane season.

Community leader Angel Colon poses next a mural dedicated to the town of Daguao.Joshua Hoyos/ABC News
Community leader Angel Colon poses next a mural dedicated to the town of Daguao.

Getting back on the power grid and keeping power during storms is a matter of life and death.

A new report suggested this week shows the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria may be more than 70 times the official estimate.

Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated that between Sept. 20 and Dec. 31, there were 4,645 "excess deaths," according to the report in the New England Journal of Medicine. The government's official death toll stands at 64.

Community organizers will be using the space at Colon's community center as a future distribution point for supplies after the next natural disaster –- all thanks to the solar panels' renewable energy.

“It is important to have that system because we know that Daguao has a lot of older residents that need medicine and now we have a system,” said Colon. “We are now prepared for the next hurricane season.”

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