Solving a Scary Water Crisis

When a hurricane devastated Puerto Rico and left most of the island without running water, Jeancarlos invented a DIY solution to bring clean H2O back to his community.

Hurricane Maria swept through the Caribbean last fall, slamming into the island of Puerto Rico on September 20. In the small mountain town of Orocovis, 17-year-old Jeancarlos Meléndez watched through the window as his neighborhood transformed from a tropical paradise into what looked like a war zone. Gusty winds roared at more than 100 miles an hour, tearing off roofs and knocking down power lines. And the rain never seemed to stop—nearly 30 inches came down in 48 hours in his region, making it impossible to walk down the street or even open the front door.

When Jeancarlos was finally able to go outside, he stood aghast. He didn’t recognize his hometown. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “The houses, the markets, and the parks were all destroyed. Not a single leaf was left on any tree.” The storm was so mighty that the entire island lost power. No electricity meant there wasn’t clean running water either, since treatment plants couldn’t operate to purify water. People, including Jeancarlos and his family, had to wait in line for safe drinking water, sometimes standing for up to 10 hours in the heat. 

Weeks later, Jeancarlos’s dad came home with a water-purifying filter that the government was handing out. When water passed through a flexible tube, it came out clean and safe to drink. Looking at it, Jeancarlos had an idea. Instead of standing in line for water or waiting for supplies like the filter to arrive, what if people could purify water at home? He got to work, trying to figure out how to design a filter that used cheap, readily available materials. “After Maria, many people got sick trying to drink from the tap or from rivers because they were so desperate for water,” he says. “I wanted to create a solution that would help but also be easy to make.”

He spent December tinkering with a few designs, referring back to notes from chemistry class, where he had learned about water purification. Eventually, Jeancarlos came up with something that seemed like it could work. The idea was simple:

Water would flow through three different buckets containing gravel, sand, and charcoal (to filter debris and absorb toxic chemicals) as well as a small amount of chlorine (to kill germs).

Jeancarlos tried out his invention. The water looked clean, but was it safe to consume? One of the trickiest things about water is that even if it’s clear, it might still contain invisible, harmful bacteria that can make people sick. To be sure, Jeancarlos had his water tested by scientists at the local water treatment plant to ensure his filter was usable. They found that the H20 from his bucket filter was just as clean as the water coming out of the plant. Success!

Jeancarlos and his family never needed to use the filter. Water was restored to his town—and much of the island—in February. But he is teaching his community how to build his filter as insurance for the future. “Hurricanes are quite common in Puerto Rico, and I want my people to have access to safe water right away the next time this happens,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to have to wait hours in line or risk his or her life drinking unsafe water ever again.” 

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