MC Engineers Jumpstart Water and Solar Power Project in Puerto Rico


Giuseppe Constanza was scrolling through his Snapchat feed when he came across a regional story dedicated to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. A small boy who was attempting to collect rainwater in a garbage pail suddenly appeared on his screen. Constanza, an engineering student at Manhattan College, knew he wanted to find a way to help.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, the nearly category five storm ravaged the island, knocking out power and access to clean water for months. Due to the economic slump in the aftermath of the storm, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education announced on April 5 that it will be closing 238 schools this summer.

Costanza immediately approached Gennaro Maffia, Ph.D., a professor in the chemical engineering department at MC, and the two reached out to the college’s Lasallian network to see if any schools in Puerto Rico needed help. That’s when they came into contact with the Colegio De La Salle, a K-12 school located in Anasco, who needed clean water and electricity in the administrative building.

“It was sort of heartbreaking,” Maffia said about arriving in Puerto Rico, “Kids were bringing water from home in bottles that they could drink during the day when they were at school.”

Water at the grade school was either intermittent, as in not being delivered from the pump, or was not potable and was unsafe to drink.

“Those things became kind of natural callings for us, and we said if these people need this level of care perhaps we can do something, and it’s really good for the soul type project, especially for the students. They can see that they can make a difference right away, so that’s what we did,” Maffia said.

The team of Manhattan College engineers involved in the project include Maffia, Costanza, and junior Samantha Rosado. The trio assessed the school’s needs and travelled to Anasco during spring break.

The team raised money through donations from the chemical engineering department and took a red-eye flight, arriving in Puerto Rico early in the morning on March 9. The team stayed at Hotel Colonial in Anasco, which is owned and operated by the parents of Christie Gonzalez-Toro, PhD., an assistant professor of kinesiology at MC.

Maffia, Costanza, and Rosado unpacked, cleaned up and immediately went to the school to conduct surveys, take measurements, and brainstorm.

“It was not in any stretch a vacation, even though Puerto Rico is thought to be the vacation spot. This was really roll up your sleeves and get cranking work,” Maffia said.

Costanza said that arriving in Puerto Rico was an “eye-opening experience.”

“It was sad, especially hearing the stories. Right off the bat you can’t physically see the destruction because it is mostly cleaned up, but if you knew what used to be there, or look at photos from before, the forests and farms are wiped out completely,” he said.

At Colegio De La Salle the team worked with Andrew Nodolski, a chemical engineering professor at Widener University, as well as Sebastian Torres, a chemical engineering student at University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez.

The team came up with a way to get clean water to the school without having any powered pump involved. Instead, the plan is to build an elevated tank structure where the height of the tank sets off a chain reaction that causes the water to trickle down through a filtration system. If possible, the team would also like to implement a solar power project to provide electricity for the administrative building.

For now, the Manhattan College team is still in regular contact with the school and is working to raise money for the construction of structures. They are planning to visit the island again at the end of May for a follow-up survey.

In the interim, the team would like to get a small generator for the school, so that they could have sustained power until a larger plan is developed. Costanza also noted that the kids need things like books, so he is working to raise more awareness on campus in order to help collect some useful but low cost items to be donated.

“The team is growing leaps and bounds,” Maffia said, “We have people from Quinnipiac College who are interested and more people from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez who are interested. [We have] several faculty members interested from all different departments getting involved as well.”

Now the biggest worry for the team is funding.

“Some of the items are expensive, so we will have to see how we can swing those items. But I’m not to worried because there is a lot of energy surrounding this project,” Maffia said.