It’s been more than a year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, cutting deep into the body and soul of the island. The daunting tale of damage and recovery can be told through various industries, from tourism to chicken processing to agriculture. Maria wiped out the 2017 coffee harvest — already staggered by blows from earlier storm cycles — and most of the trees. A new tree takes three years to produce fruit; growers would have to plant 6 million every year for the next three years just to regain their 2017 production levels. Few family-owned farms have the wherewithal to endure three years of rebuilding, let alone to survive another year like 2017.
Impacts on nature were equally profound. Estimates of bees killed by the storm run up to 90 percent, with the corresponding effects on fruit crops that depend on bees for pollination. Destruction of forests in the eastern end of the island exposed the forest floor to erosion, heat, and ultraviolet light. Consequently, a species of tree frog that sings at night and was adapted to this region is functionally extinct — a silent spring of sorts.
The 2017 hurricanes laid bare the risks posed by decades of informal construction. Tens of thousands of homes on steep slopes and in flood zones were destroyed. Thousands more were a total loss from wind uplift on corrugated steel and wood roofs and from smashed unreinforced masonry walls.
Less evident than the spectacular devastation of dwellings and systems was the grinding loss from seemingly minor damage on otherwise intact structures that overwhelmed residents and businesses for months. The local climate requires dehumidification for operating hotels, healthcare facilities, food service, and any dwelling that lacks ample ventilation. Leaks from wind-driven rain, loss of air conditioning from lack of power, and tropical heat for an extended period of time produced rampant mold growth. Similarly, leakage into electrical rooms, elevator machine rooms, and the like ruined systems in thousands of buildings.
Despite the bad news, the response to the disaster offers glimmers of hope. After Maria, citizen networks mobilized to complement the clipboard-and-form bureaucracy. Maria entered the island on its southeast coast, precisely the operating region of a nonprofit organization called Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio Inc., or PECES, founded in 1985 by a former Catholic nun. Its mission, to foster the economic and social development of disadvantaged communities, has now expanded to the fit-out of hardened shelters, starting from existing abandoned structures that survived the hurricane.
There is renewed interest in the cooperative movement, which has a long history on the island. After notable successes in recent years taking over private factories slated to close upon the expiration of tax incentives, business cooperatives mobilized their membership to repair damage to properties and surrounding communities. Design professionals from the Boston area have united to collaborate with local professionals, institutions, and citizen groups to apply design and resiliency ideas to recovery projects and planning efforts. The eventual deployment of local, decentralized electrical micro-grids is now all but certain. Micro-grids operate autonomously and can keep the lights on when the central power grid fails. Lessons learned from these installations will eventually benefit millions around the world.
One has to hope that the resourcefulness, focus, and energy of so many agents bolsters the island’s resiliency. While we are focusing on storms, let’s not overlook the fact that the Puerto Rico Trench and nearby fault lines have the potential to generate earthquakes in excess of a Richter magnitude of 8.0. The last big one, tsunami and all, occurred during hurricane season, on October 11, 1918.