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Switched On, Off the Grid in the Caribbean

The island nation of Dominica was without power for months after Hurricane Maria. Power resiliency is now a focus in advance of future storms.


Hurricane Maria

A solar nanogrid is unveiled in Grand Fond, Dominica, on Oct. 4, 2019. The nanogrid provides emergency power, water purification and refrigerated storage for medicines like vaccines. (Photo by Chad Ambo for Direct Relief)

A month after Hurricane Maria ravaged Dominica, no one on the Caribbean island had access to potable, running water. An ABC News report also confirmed that at least 85% of buildings were damaged or destroyed, along with massive breakdowns in local sewage systems.

The people of Grand Fond, a small, isolated mountaintop town, dealt with all those problems, and more. It would be more than a year before grid-based electricity returned to the community after the Category 5 storm hit, causing more than 30 deaths.

“Usually after disasters, Grand Fond is one of the communities that’s easily cut off by landslides and that can cause a challenge for healthcare delivery,” said Eva Vigilant, nurse supervisor and community health nurse of Grand Fond’s Laplaine Health District, home to 2,000 people.

Over 95 percent of the buildings and infrastructure on the island of Dominica were destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)
At least 85 percent of the buildings and infrastructure on the island of Dominica were destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)

In the months after the storm, Vigilant and other community leaders investigated new technologies that would allow for health services to come back online more quickly after a storm or disaster — especially those that would not require the need to haul gallons upon gallons of fuel and water up the mountain or to other devastated areas.

They settled on a solar powered, converted shipping container called a nanogrid, manufactured by Sesame Solar, that’s able to generate electricity and purify about 500 liters of water per day. The first container was installed in the capital city of Roseau last year, while the second was installed in Grand Fond earlier this month.

The unit was donated by Direct Relief and fully stocked with a host of medicines requested by Vigilant and the Dominica Ministry of Health. The unit also contains a medical grade refrigerator for temperature sensitive medicines, like vaccines and insulin, as well as a satellite communication beacon, equipment that is critically important since communications were down, along with electricity, after Maria.

“Dominica has realized, as an island, that we are very vulnerable to these disasters,” said Dr. Martin Christmas, health liaison officer for Dominica’s Ministry of Health.

“This solar Nanogrid is going to play a critical role in allowing us to continue to provide essential health services in that community [of Grand Fond] should we face another such disaster,” said Christmas.

Beyond medical services, some saw a broader implication in the installation of the new technology.

“The Caribbean is much more than just land and sea, the Caribbean is a people. This nanogrid is an effort to conserve the continuity of our people,” said Randy Freeman, who was born on Tortola and now lives in Puerto Rico, where he runs Enatura, a utility services company that coordinated the deployment of the nanogrid.

Freeman said that the nanogrid will help the people of Grand Fond become more “climate resilient” in the face of future natural disasters. “We are strong but we want our culture to remain,” he said.

The container is 20 feet long and houses an office for health care providers as well as a small warehouse area. It also contains many outlets, all of which are solar powered, for charging devices.

From the outside, with its panels flipped up and bright colors, it looks almost like a fast food or ice cream stand.

Members of the public and local health staff tour the nanogrid. (Photo by Chad Ambo for Direct Relief)
Members of the public and local health staff tour the nanogrid. (Photo by Chad Ambo for Direct Relief)

The one set in Grand Fond was strategically placed right next to the local health clinic, where it will support daily activities and healthcare services, such as vaccination campaigns. The installation process was facilitated by the Ministry of Health and local residents, who laid a concrete foundation as well as provided, and operated, forklifts to move the nanogrid into place.

“It is definitely contributing to resiliency in that area. This is a first step,” said Christmas. More units are planned on the island in the coming years.

Vigilant and Christmas mentioned the nanogrid’s ability to provide water and electricity after storms as its most critical features. But beyond those tangible services, Vigilant said the system has provided her with another benefit as well.

“I feel hopeful,” she said.

— Additional reporting contributed by Luis David Rodríguez in Grand Fond, Dominica, and Dan Hovey in Santa Barbara.

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