Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond standing around and watching the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.

Beyond the Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

J.D. Tuccille of Reason.com has rounded up the latest denunciations of seasteading — the concept of autonomous man-made islands:

Criticism of seasteading now takes on an oddly strident tone, and from unusual sources.

A week after reporting on DeltaSync’s Seasteading Implementation Plan, Global Construction Review, an online publication of Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building, ran an attack on the idea as an abandonment of social responsibility. The publication’s editor, Rod Sweet, took time away from the business of covering engineering and construction to “to lay bare the motivation behind the movement—the libertarian urge for the freedom to profit without having to contribute to the social conditions that make profit possible.”

In recent years there’s been a trend toward attacking Information-Age developments based not on the deficiencies of the technology or issues but rather on the perception that said plans are libertarian schemes to avoid taxes. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Libertarian criminality. Secession — not from the US, but into smaller, more responsive state or municipal bodies? Perfidious libertarian tax evasion. Seasteading? A misguided dream by “adherents of ‘libertarianism,’ that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.” This last written by none other than China Mieville, the Marxist don who moonlights as a successful science-fiction writer.

Any news story about seasteading invariably descends into Rapture jokes in the comments but there’s nothing inherently libertarian about man-made islands. You could just as easily use the technology for a floating kibbutz as for an art-deco Galt’s Gulch. Even one of seasteading’s major advocates has said, “We can’t build libertopia … Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you’re designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism.”

Regardless of seasteading’s practicality (while cautiously intrigued, I have several unanswered questions about it myself), it is disturbing that scientific futurism is met so reactionarily — especially by readers and writers of speculative fiction (to see examples by readers, check out the comments sections of any io9 article on these subjects). Setting aside the questions of when and why did libertarians become bogeymen to the left (Radley Balko keeps a list), what the hell happened to sci-fi? Are Martian colonies not dismissed as libertarian conspiracies because they are decades away while Bitcoin, etc. are happening now or very soon? When did imagining a better world of tomorrow go from Heinlein to thought-crime? After all, the first proponent of oceanic utopianism was the 19th-century hero of the left, Jules Verne, who inspired those seeking an escape from the -isms of capital and czar:

“Also,” [Nemo] added, “true existence is there; and I can imagine the foundations of nautical towns, clusters of submarine houses, which, like the Nautilus, would ascend every morning to breathe at the surface of the water — free towns, independent cities.”

I think it’s more likely that, in the words of another 19th-century author, these same writers and readers, so eager to throw out the old idols, have sworn loyalty to another, and to turn your back on it is heresy.

Or maybe it’s simply because misery loves company.

Live Fast, Love Hard, Own an Island

I have an article busting the myths surrounding Vincent Island, a deserted acre of rock and sand less than half a mile off Connecticut’s shoreline, in today’s Stamford Advocate.

I’m especially proud of this piece because there are so many garbled stories about the island (its Wikipedia entry, for example); even a current co-owner, a nice old lady, insists on believing her well-worn yarns instead of documented evidence to the contrary. I did a fair amount of archival research on the island and uncovered stuff not even the Stamford Historical Society knew about.

The island is best known for its overgrown ruins of a large cottage, which was built by an owner named Paul Smart:

In 1945 the island was bought by Paul Hurlburt Smart, a lawyer and world-class sailor who lived in Darien.

Smart’s 1979 obituary is a laundry list of accolades. Born in Nova Scotia, he was a graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Law and Oxford; was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart in World War I; belonged to several yachting clubs and was first commodore of the Noroton Yacht Club; was chairman of the Olympic Yachting Committee, captained and managed the 1972 Olympic Yachting team; and himself won gold sailing in the 1948 Olympics.

Also, Smart enjoyed group sex.

From page 22 of a December 2, 1943 New York Times news story (not online):

Paul H. Smart, a lawyer who is well known in the midtown district as a night club frequenter, was sentenced yesterday in Special Sessions to a nine-month penitentiary term on his guilty plea two weeks ago with two other men and two women to indecently exposing themselves in an East Forty-seventh Street apartment that the police raided on the night of Sept. 29.

The other men, one of whom owned the apartment, received six-month workhouse sentences. The women, both 22 years old, each received three-month workhouse terms. The fact that Smart was given a much harsher sentence in comparison suggests prosecutors perceived him as the ringleader.

To be fair, the article never says what exactly the group was doing; they could have been having an orgy, yes, but they could have been nudists playing charades too. The article ends with this:

The sentences were pronounced after Assistant District Attorney Lawrence J. McKenna had described the five as “moral lepers who should be dealt with severely as a deterrent to others of their kind.” He added that the five were members of a “degenerate clique.”

Some degenerate. Five years later Smart the decorated war vet and island landlord won gold at the Olympics — at the age of 56. As with the Michael Phelps brouhaha last year, authorities then and now seem shocked that folks who work hard, play hard. I’m sure moral finger-waggers everywhere champ at the bit to someday raid an Olympic Village and disrupt the fabled hook-up parties rumored to take place within.

Or is that just another urban legend I must investigate?

Plum Opportunity

Plebeian crowds may yet swarm Plum Island — “America’s first line of defense against foreign animal diseases,” and, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, source of Lyme disease*:

The general public could someday get access to the 840-acre pork chop-shaped oasis now that the federal government is moving its animal disease research functions to a new lab in Manhattan, Kan. With a “For Sale” sign about to go up at Plum Island, the General Services Administration is seeking community input on what should be done with the property. A hearing was held Wednesday in Connecticut and another is scheduled for Thursday on Long Island.

Full story here. I realize the island has long been deemed a security threat due to its proximity to New York City and its airports, but I have to question if moving a laboratory researching animal diseases to the heart of the Midwest is sound.

Regardless, what’s shocking to me is the feds actually asked for input from the Constitution State. Opening Plum Island is a rare chance to create another Block Island, Shelter Island, or Fishers Island, and most tourists would enter via the same Cross Sound Ferry running out of New London to Orient Point. But I doubt Plum will be sold for private development; a more likely scenario is that it will be turned over to the Parks Service. At least then perhaps overnight camping would be available, something none of the aforementioned islands allow.

A New York congressman lowballs Plum Island at $50 to $80 million. Still, my guess is it will be at least a decade before the island is closed, cleaned, and pronounced suitable for civilians.

(*I’m not generally, though even I think it’s overly coincidental that Lyme disease, a vector-borne pathogen, appeared less than 20 miles north-northwest of a facility researching just those things.)