Just over a month ago on Wednesday September 20, the fifth-strongest storm ever to hit the US made catastrophic landfall on Puerto Rico, killing at least 49 people and upending the lives of 3.4 million US citizens, many of them still homeless and without access to electricity, clean water, or proper healthcare. Having caused billions of dollars more in damage than Harvey and Irma before it, it soon became clear that the level of destruction and displacement wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico stemmed from a combination of factors; a broke government and already crumbling infrastructure, relief efforts that were too little too late, and decades of unjust colonialist policies.
Under such difficult circumstances, the issue now is not just how it will recover from a set back of 20-30 years, but how it will build back better so that the country and its most vulnerable communities are more resilient when the next hurricane hits.
We tapped into our network of alumni and faculty to hear from four experts whose knowledge and experience in disaster recovery and ties to Puerto Rico could shed light on the current situation. Here’s what they had to say.
Eric Cesal | “Design is politics”
Former director of Architecture for Humanity, currently Special Projects Director for Curry Stone Design Prize and also a guest professor of our program, Eric is a postdisaster architect who has led on-the-ground reconstruction efforts in Haiti, Japan, and in the US after Superstorm Sandy.
“Because of their status as a U.S. territory, they’re not afforded bankruptcy protection like the other 50 states are. So when they started to slide into financial crisis about ten years ago, there was no reasonable way to deal with it. As the crisis deepened, people started leaving the island, which made everything even worse. No economic growth and high unemployment means decreased spending on exactly the sort of infrastructure that would have dampened the effect of the hurricane. Like all disasters, it was decades in the making. And the reason that that debt hasn’t been canceled or restructured is because it’s owed to Wall Street hedge fund managers…
Can we rebuild? Yeah. Is the island going to be devastated for decades? Yeah, absolutely, it will be so until we change the underlying power structures that created the crisis in the first place. Even with a compassionate and committed federal government, recovery would still take a decade. Given that we have a current government who seems to hold the entire island in contempt, it’s difficult to imagine how recovery will meaningfully proceed under this administration.”
Sergio Palleroni | “Rethinking failing systems”
Cofounder of Basic Initiative, head of PSU’s Center for Public Interest Design and one of our guest professors, Sergio has worked in postdisaster and development for 30 years and is currently working in Puerto Rico with Mercy Corps to build a task force to create distributed energy and water system which will hopefully replace current system and create future resilience.
“It’s a tragedy what’s happened in both Mexico and Puerto Rico, not only for what was destroyed but for what is exposed in terms of longstanding problems that have burdened the recent history of these two proud countries. For Puerto Rico, the dysfunctions of a continued colonialism and downturn is evident. People are mobilizing and now taking over the process. Mobilization has been slower than Mexico, because of how politically fragmented the country has become over the last few years, and unlike Mexico, Puerto Rican communities don’t have the long history of working around an inefficient system, though in way that is their history as well. Case in point, power was up in most of Morelos (Mexico) and in the region within the week, patched together by people, but today much of Puerto Rico still has no service. Both crises have made evident how communities mobilize around failing systems and how rethinking these systems are the most urgent need. It’s certainly the message you feel in the streets as we work to support recovery.”
Elaine Morales-Díaz | “A locally driven approach”
An alumni since 2012, Elaine was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is Design Associate at bcWorkshop, where she led the award-winning Rapid Disaster Recovery Housing Pilot Program.
“Maria has uncovered to the international community the fragile state of my homeland. It has exposed Puerto Rico’s crippled infrastructure, functioning under an inefficient, monopolized and corrupted system. Overall, it has highlighted the systemic issues of the current Disaster Response, Relief and Recovery System, some of which we have already seen in US mainland. It’s evident the lack of planning, preparedness and coordination at both Federal and State level for Puerto Rico. Yes, Maria was a catastrophic, unprecedented hurricane but the aftermath of a natural disaster is not the place to start assessing what the problems and barriers are while trying to react and respond. The lack of planning for recovery at the local level is at the root of extended delays in the disaster recovery process.
We need to organize and define locally driven approaches for the recovery and reconstruction of a resilient Puerto Rico, one that is better prepared to respond and recover from the next Maria. Five things that need to happen:
- Advocate prior and after disasters for a clear path between relief funds and disaster recovery funding. Disaster recovery takes time and current policies complicate the process of expediting it. The separation of relief funds and recovery funds is one of the biggest reasons for delays in housing recovery. Think of these processes like buckets of money; the next one won’t be available until you spend the firsts one. First goes FEMA with their relief measures, then goes insurances, then FEMA again with their temporary housing solutions, then the small business administration loans. When all these buckets have been allocated and with the idea of avoiding duplication of services, CDBG Disaster Recovery grants are then allocated for housing reconstruction. The philanthropic community could be instrumental in filling the gap between relief and recovery funding and aid families that fall through the eligibility requirements that federal and state recovery money will be tied to, while we advocate for policy change.
- Leverage FEMA temporary housing funding into long-term recovery efforts. Due to the extended periods of relief activities, the federal government spends large amounts of funds in relief housing solutions. Usually these temporary solutions cost more than what a permanent home costs to build and stay much longer than expected. All the money that goes to temporary solutions is money that doesn’t go to long term ones that can have a lasting impact on future reconstruction and recovery processes. The need for shelter is real and immediate but we need to be careful with the temporary solutions we implement during this process because these temporary solutions can lead to protracted situations. Take for instance Louisiana, a US mainland example, where FEMA spent $129,000 per temporary mobile unit in response to the August 2016 floods. More than a year later, people are still living in mobile units when those funds could have been allocated to building permanent houses that met long term needs. I think a step towards a positive long-term impact would be to invest relief funding in structures in need of repairs, in advocating for host families and in allowing the use of vacant homes as transitional housing until permanent solutions can be implemented.
- Document damage and conditions at the neighborhood level and report needs and opportunities from high risk areas appropriately. We need to prevent the use of inaccurate damage assessments for the allocation of recovery funds. Including only satellite data could increase pre-existing inequities and individual needs may be neglected. I’ve seen how damage assessments and mapping processes can impact the allocation of funds and disadvantage low-income communities. I am particularly worried about this with Puerto Rico because a month after Maria there are areas deemed unreachable and the emergency state is still ongoing. Low income communities are more vulnerable to the effects of a disaster and can experience a slower recovery, which we are already seeing in our rural areas and the center of the island. It is imperative that we bring attention to these areas throughout the disaster recovery process.
- Prioritize strategies that build on our geographic and socio-cultural characteristics, reduce vulnerabilities and build resiliency rather than just rebuilding.We should think of this catastrophe as an opportunity to rethink our built environment. Things would be different if we had recognized and prioritized our geographic conditions over design trends. More than ever we should elevate local voices that had advocated for locally based approaches to design and construction.
- Implement bottom-up and locally based approaches to recovery. After a Federally Declared Disaster many processes come into play, and if the local jurisdiction is not prepared to respond, a top-down approach will be implemented. It is important to bring in local expertise to these processes and make sure context appropriate solutions are implemented. The urgency of recovery will become a barrier for participatory processes but it is important to engage local experts and our communities throughout. Local community organizations should be empowered as representatives of the voice of our communities. In my personal experience, collaborations between community organizations, community development corporations, planners and designers provide multidisciplinary approaches to the implementation of sustainable and locally-driven solutions.”
Elizabeth Rivera | “Resilient informal communities”
An alumni of 2014, Elizabeth is also native to Puerto Rico and wrote her thesis–Collaborative Resilience: Optimizing Disaster Mitigation Strategies for the Special Communities of Puerto Rico–specifically on the topic of disaster mitigation strategies for informal communities in PR. She currently works at a New Jersey architecture firm ensuring that coastal homes comply with new flood maps in the area.
“Disaster mitigation needs to be addressed differently for informal communities because they do not have the same conditions, resources, or capacity to protect themselves from natural disasters as the formal sector. They are vulnerable because of their lack of knowledge and access to disaster mitigation strategies, their struggle for everyday survival due to low income, lack of adequate housing, and basic infrastructure services. Many of them are located in hazard-prone areas, and although things like hazard maps do exist in Puerto Rico, this information is not accessible to poor communities.
In my thesis I proposed 5 mitigation strategies and tools that can be applied to the current situation in Puerto Rico:
- Community outreach: Devising a disaster awareness campaign in community centers, schools, and churches
- Capacity building: Rolling out emergency management training for the vulnerable population
- Land use and planning: Creating community-based mapping tools
- Disaster management: Inter-agency coordination, emergency drills and evacuation routes
- Safe building practices: Establishing a public building safety network and construction workshops by technical professionals
By optimizing current disaster practices and addressing them in informal communities, PR can build resilience to natural disasters. A bottom-up approach for disaster management would empower the communities to create evacuation plans tailored to their individual needs, and determine facilities that could be used as shelters such as community centers, schools, and churches. With the support of governmental agencies, practice exercises in the communities can be performed to determine if the current community plans are successful in protecting the communities from natural disasters. Of course, current challenges to making these policies a reality are the political status of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth and the delay from the US administration to provide a quick response after Hurricane Maria.”
Left: A collapsed bridge in the municaplity of Cidra, PR. Right: A collapsed sports pavilion in a school in Barceloneta, PR. © Nestor Lebron Gonzalez
As of now, Puerto Rico’s future is uncertain. While some feel that under the current administration, the battered island only stands to be exploited and underserved throughout its reconstruction, others have hope that the catastrophe will serve as a catalyst for grassroots recovery efforts to slowly, but surely, forge new models of development–designed by, and for, Puerto Ricans.
Top photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images