Averting collapse after a catastrophe
Hurricane Maria was more than a disaster for Puerto Rico, it was a catastrophe. As a U.S. territory, the island is entitled to all the resources freed up by a presidential disaster declaration, but these mainly address the needs of short-term housing and business recovery and the restoration of publicly owned infrastructure.
Rebuilding communities, and especially doing so with resilience in mind, will require a large infusion of funding. The alternative is a protracted humanitarian crisis that drives out people and businesses. It took more than ten years for New Orleans to return to its pre-Katrina population, but the demographics of the city changed irreversibly in the process. Many people found their networks and cultures permanently displaced.
Given Puerto Rico's prior economic challenges and isolated geography, the risks that the island's fragile economy will spiral downward are increasing. With the tragedy of catastrophe also come opportunities for innovation and change. But to seize these, the planning for long-term recovery has to be collaborative and inclusive—not top-down. Residents, businesses, institutions, and the financial sector must all be motivated to stay and tip in.
What's next: In the dynamic recovery phase, leaders have to anticipate the potential for cascading and unintended consequences, and engage the community for sustainable redevelopment.
Other voices in the conversation:
- Edwin Meléndez, professor of urban affairs and planning and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY: The island economy needs massive federal support
- Sergio M. Marxuach, policy director, Center for a New Economy, San Juan, PR: Congress has to step up
- Ozlem Ergun, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, Northeastern University: Short-term relief, long-term resilience
- Vivek Shandas, professor of urban studies and planning, Portland State University: Rebuilding with extreme events in mind