Five months ago, this column told you about 69 Methodist churches from Western Virginia that combined efforts to help Puerto Ricans after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
That idea sparked from a 2018 mission trip by Raleigh Court United Methodist Church members, who spent a week in Puerto Rico rebuilding a home destroyed in the storm.
While the Roanokers were on the island, they met a woman who had cobbled together a solar generator from an array of parts she’d been able to scavenge. Maria destroyed the island’s electrical grid. Much of it remained down for months, hampering recovery efforts.
The Roanokers returned home, determined to figure out a way to raise money for the purchase of solar generator kits for distribution on the island. They estimated they’d need at least $50,000 for 50 solar generators, which would cost $1,000 to $1,500 apiece.
Western Virginia’s Methodists ended up raising $65,000. That resulted in the purchase of 47 generators. Monday, eight church members returned from Puerto Rico after assembling and delivering battery-backed-up gizmos to residents on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
But as happens with the best laid plans, the recent trip went anything but smoothly for the Virginians — Eric Anderson, Larry Dickenson, Michelle Home, Scott McCoy, Joe Downing, Rich McGimsey, Howard Evans and Greg Huffman.
I learned this Wednesday from a slightly panicked email by McGimsey, who also went to Puerto Rico on last year’s mission trip.
“We have a team of 8 from Roanoke waiting since Monday in the community of Vieques to distribute the generators to 47 families,” he wrote me. “Our time here to do what we came to do runs out on Sunday.”
The solar generating equipment arrived Sept. 27 in Puerto Rico, McGimsey said. The Roanokers arrived three days later, on Sept. 30. Shortly afterward, the group ran into a hitch known worldwide as bureaucratic inertia, which, in human history, is probably responsible for stymieing more progress than any other single item.
First, the Roanokers were told they had to pay tax on the generators before Puerto Rican authorities would allow the equipment’s release from the port. So long as it was tied up there, the group couldn’t get the goods to Vieques.
That wasn’t the only you-can’t-do-this tale the Virginians heard. The utility responsible for Puerto Rico’s electricity didn’t want the generator kits distributed because officials feared that would cost the power company 47 otherwise paying customers, McGimsey said.
The Roanokers initially expected the generators to be released Sept. 30, McGimsey told me by phone Monday from San Juan. Next, they thought Oct. 1. Another day passed and still no generators.
Under normal circumstances, such hiccups can be cured with a wad of cash strategically slipped into the right pocket of a key person.
Worldwide, this solution is so famous that just about every language on Earth has its own euphemism for it. Forbes magazine has published a list of 129 different terms used round the world for something that in the United States goes by the slang “greasing the palm.”
(In the Czech Republic, the term translates into “little carp.” It Azerbaijan, “respect.” In Hungary, oddly, it’s known as “Nokia box.” The infamous story behind that involves a deputy mayor of Budapest caught with some cellphone packaging stuffed with cash.)
Alas, the Roanokers felt reluctant to stoop to such a level — after all, they are church people.
Not that it didn’t occur to them in an idle moment or two, McGimsey said. But bribery “is on the list of forbidden things to do on a mission,” he added.
Eventually, they got it worked out with reason, patience and a few prayers.
The Virginians were able to explain to the right Puerto Rican officials that they were working with ReHace, a Puerto Rican group of 100 Methodist congregations. Because ReHace is a tax-exempt outfit and the generator equipment had been consigned to it, no tax was owed.
To overcome the electric company’s objections, families that received the generators had to sign a form stating they would not use them except in the case of a prolonged power outage.
After 11 p.m. Thursday, McGimsey emailed me again.
“The solar panels were released from the port in San Juan and arrived in Vieques late this afternoon,” he wrote.
That left the Virginians three days to assemble and distribute the generators to 47 homes, something they had planned to spend six days doing.
“Once we got to the homes, it was just a matter of explaining to the owner how to use it,” McGimsey said.
Electricity has been restored to Vieques. Many of its residents went for seven months without power after Maria, McGimsey told me. About 30 percent left their homes and moved to Puerto Rico’s main island rather than live with no electricity.
The generator kits include solar panels, a battery to store electricity and an inverter. They can run a small refrigerator, a fan and a light or two. Residents will store the generators until they’re needed, McGimsey said.
Hopefully, that’ll be never. But if the generators are needed, life should be a bit more bearable the next time the power goes out.
Bravo to the Methodists.