The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent $361 million on bottled water in Puerto Rico by the end of January, after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September.
“Water is the one thing you need when you have a disaster,” said Moses West, founder of AWG Contracting, a company that generates water. “We’re always flying it in. It’s always so expensive to move water.”
For more than three months, West has been creating clean water and giving it away on Vieques, the island city eight miles off Puerto Rico.
He came to Vieques because he heard, after the storm, the island’s water system became contaminated from leaching due to its aging infrastructure and heavy rain. The island city’s 7,800 residents often have to find other water sources.
Standing next to what was the only hospital on the island, West bent over a control panel and turns an ignitions switch.
“Here we go,” he says, firing up his atmospheric water generator. “Like a computer, it has to boot up.”
It’s a 20-foot-long, green shipping container that turns humid air into water through condensation. This industrial scale generator puts out as many as 2,000 gallons daily, depending on the humidity level.
“They come down to me to get water,” said West about the lines of people and cars he sees each day. “They bring water to people who don’t have cars, cars are broke down, people who are trying to build their houses in the middle of nowhere and no one has even gone to see them.”
West, a former Army Ranger and helicopter pilot, says the island is like a combat zone, at times, with regular blackouts, phone service outages and high crime.
“It’s a tough environment,” he said. “It’s like being downrange.”
After West left the Army, he got really into water systems and started AWG Contracting, which builds the generators.
He’s sold smaller units to the Army, even demonstrating one these big generators at Camp Mabry in Austin. But he wanted to show what an industrial-sized generator could do in a real life disaster relief scenario. When he saw the need in Puerto Rico, he said he saw that opportunity.
He raised $14,000 in donations through his nonprofit The Water Rescue Foundation to ship his $350,000 here in January. He said he’s been operating it at a loss, alone, ever since.
West documents his journey on The Water Rescue Foundation’s Facebook page, with videos of people getting water, and lines of cars snaking into the street.
“I finally made it to Puerto Rico,” said West in one video, before turning to interview a woman at the airport stranded in the storm.
WATCH | Moses West arrives in Puerto Rico, and talks to Vieques resident Lisa Young
The videos act as journal entries, describing the mundane aspects of being there. In one video, he explains how he cleans the generator. In another, he explains to people the water is free, and solicits donations to keep his machine going.
“My apologies to all the folks out there that need water. … I have officially run out of diesel fuel,” he said in one video. “Your donations absolutely matter.”
Vieques residents like Lisa Young were surprised when West showed up.
WATCH | Moses West asks for donations to help continue generating water
“I was like, ‘How are you here?’ ” said Lisa Young, a Vieques resident. “It was absolutely miraculous to me that he had heard about our plight.”
Young has lived on on the island for a decade.
She said people in Vieques were wary of its water system even before Hurricane Maria. The city has a cancer rate 27 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico, according to several studies. She said West’s water is far better than what comes out of their taps.
But Young said the community is not ready for the impending hurricane season.
“He’s absolutely going to be necessary after the next hurricane,” she said. “We have a tiny semblance of normal right now.”
West said he was going to stay on the island through the next season.
He said he can test and tweak his larger unit while getting to do something valuable for an entire island.
“He has a warrior’s spirit and a servant’s heart,” said Les Shepard, professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas San Antonio.
They met when West's company was piloting a water generator at Trinity University. Shephard would go on to co-author a paper on the technology with West.
“Moses has been in Puerto Rico since January,” he said. “To my knowledge this is the longest deployment of an industrial scale unit of this type ever.”
The number of companies like this have more than tripled in the past few years, Shephard said. While still expensive compared to desalination and ground water, he said atmospheric generators are well suited for disaster relief.
A FEMA manager who saw West’s work, wrote a white paper in January that said atmospheric water generators powered by solar energy could be a cost effective way to help communities across both Puerto Rico and the entire southern U.S.
“I think it’s a game changer,” said Ted Cowan, a disaster relief consultant for the Puerto Rican government.
If it were up to him, he said, Vieques would have four solar-powered generators producing all its water.
West agrees hooking up to solar is paramount. He connected to Tesla’s solar arrays earlier this month. He said the move dropped his operating costs dramatically.