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Living Off the Grid and Safe From Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

In this jungle community, self-sustaining homes are built from trash and can withstand the deadliest storms.

Cristina Moody

When Noemi and Carlos Chaparro peered outside on September 21, 2017, they gasped at the destruction. Hurricane Maria, which had made landfall the previous day, had uprooted the gracious old palm and bamboo groves that once stood on their family farm in northwest Puerto Rico. The wind had torn the roof off the bedroom their two sons shared. The electricity was down. To get water, Carlos and Noemi had to carry buckets from a nearby river. To feed their three kids, they captured a pigeon and cracked open coconuts. The family couldn’t reach a working phone until early October. “It was traumatic,” Noemi told me. “Apocalyptic.”

For the Chaparros and millions of other Puerto Ricans, the hurricane served as a bitter reminder that this vestige of forgotten American empire still relies on a federal government that can’t be trusted to provide for even its most basic needs. After Maria, the Trump administration responded, but with delays. Convinced the funds would only go to paying off Puerto Rico’s debts, President Donald Trump tried to divert aid to the battered coasts of Texas and Florida. Poor communication, ruined infrastructure, and shoddy transportation left crucial aid stranded in Puerto Rico’s ports for weeks. Nearly 3,000 people died. Five months after the storm, a fifth of the island’s population still lacked electricity. No American community has suffered through a longer blackout.

The Chaparros had moved to the island from Chicago in 2011. After the storm, with the land around their home a gnarled mess, they learned from friends about an organization called Earthship Biotecture. Founded in the 1980s by a renegade architect from Kentucky named Michael Reynolds, it builds homes that provide shelter, temperature control, food, water, waste disposal, and electricity—all without hooking up to an electric grid or relying on a utility company. Earthship’s nonprofit arm had completed projects in Haiti and Nepal after destructive earthquakes there, and in the Philippines after a typhoon. Now, the group was looking to build in Puerto Rico. Like America’s early frontier families, who lived off the land, the Chaparros wanted to learn to survive independently, far from a federal government too occupied with other matters to provide sufficient help or support. Three months after the storm, they invited Reynolds’s group to build a compound on their land, which was how I wound up in a tropical jungle, pounding dirt into tires with 50 strangers.

When I arrived at the work site in January, the project was entering its third phase, and Reynolds was balanced atop a six-foot wall of used tires. Wearing aviator sunglasses, he swung a sledgehammer into a beat-up Michelin full of dirt and crushed rock, his shoulder-length white hair falling onto a long-sleeved shirt drenched in sweat. At 73, he’s a rare breed: a combination of Captain Planet and Howard Roark, the intransigent architect in The Fountainhead.

“If there’s a hurricane in Puerto Rico, I want to be in that building right there,” he told me later that day, pointing to one of the completed domed huts. “This is not dependent on anybody—government, or a corporation. This is people having the power of the planet.”

Reynolds has devoted his life to sustainable architecture. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in the late 1960s, he bought land near Taos, New Mexico, and started building the first of these homes. Today, the Greater World Community spans 650 acres and 70 homes, making it one of the largest off-grid subdivisions in the world. It’s also a sought-after Airbnb destination, popular with millennial Instagrammers drawn to take photos of the otherworldly buildings—with their domed and turreted pueblo facades—set atop northern New Mexico’s Martian landscape.

With Maria, Reynolds saw an opportunity to serve a different audience: the people struggling to survive the effects of climate change in the tropics. Used to building in the dry air of New Mexico, his team set about adjusting the design for the wet, hot climate of the Caribbean. The result was a series of small, domed buildings that look like they were imported from Tatooine, the desert planet in Star Wars. A circular cutout in the center of the roof lets heat escape and keeps moisture out during Puerto Rico’s humid days. Even when temperatures drop, the huts remain a consistent temperature because of all the garbage and dirt stuffed, for insulation, in the narrow gap between two walls. (The inner wall is made of tires packed with dirt and covered in plaster; the outer of cement and glass bottles scavenged from Puerto Rico’s overflowing landfills.)

For buildings made of what’s essentially trash, they’re remarkably complex and resilient, built to withstand even the deadliest hurricane. High winds can pass around the circular walls and over the domed roofs without causing damage. Even if the next storm knocks out the electric grid, which is all but certain (the federal government spent $3.8 billion to patch it after Maria, but it remains fragile), the huts would still have water, which is collected in cisterns and filtered through a sophisticated recycling system that feeds a garden and flushes toilets. Solar panels would provide electricity. “We can be independent,” Noemi told me. “It’s not fair to completely blame the government.... We need to point the finger at ourselves.”

The Chaparros have volunteered their site as an education center that could also serve as a gathering place for survivors to access running water and electricity when the next major storm hits. Earthships, they hope, will be one way for people living on the frontiers of climate change to thrive.