Battered, Betrayed, but Not Beaten: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Published Sep 18, 2018

Climate Scientist Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto teaches us about community and resilience a year after Maria.

In this episode
  • Juan talks about Puerto Rico, one year after Hurricane Maria
  • Juan explains the role community plays in resilience
  • Abby and Juan explore how science can aid in the island's recovery
  • Abby and Juan talk about planning for climate risks
Timing and cues
  • Florence Segment (0:00-3:09)
  • Opener (3:09-4:09)
  • Intro (4:09-6:20)
  • Interview Part 1 (6:20-16:55)
  • Break (16:55-17:29)
  • Interview Part 2 (17:29-26:43)
  • Sidelining Science Throw (26:43-26:48)
  • Sidelining Science (26:48-29:17)
  • Outro (29:17-29:55)
Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: Hey, everyone. The topic of today's podcast is the year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. But I wanted to first spend a few minutes on Hurricane Florence. As we're recording right now, Florence has hit Cambridge, Massachusetts and it's raining buckets. My fabulous colleague, Climate Policy Director Rachel Cleetus, popped over in the pouring rain to give me her perspective on Hurricane Florence.

Rachel: Thank you, Colleen. Yeah. As you said, we've got flash flood warnings up all over Massachusetts today. We're seeing torrential rainfall, but when this storm made landfall last week near Wrightsville, North Carolina on the 14th of September, it brought record-breaking storm surge and torrential rainfall to the Carolinas, to Virginia, and it's made its way up north now. Those areas are still seeing the effects of the storm. We're seeing rivers near record levels that still haven't reached their crest. So, all through this week, we're going to see flooding worsen in the state. We saw record-breaking rainfall. As of now, 32 people have lost their lives. Moody's has estimated initially that the damage costs are in the range of $17 billion to $22 billion, and that could go up.

So, we've got rivers like the Cape Fear, the Trent, the Pee Dee still rising. There are concerns about coal ash ponds and hog lagoons being breached which could spill toxic waste into waterways. At the peak of the storm, over a million people lost power. The Brunswick nuclear power plant had to be shut down and the area around it is still flooded, blocking access to people coming in and going out. Major highways and roads have been closed for days, leaving some communities cut off. And what we're seeing, unfortunately, in a reminder of Hurricane Maria from last year, is that smaller or more isolated and lower-income communities are bearing a disproportionate brunt of this storm too. And this storm comes on the heels of last year's record-breaking hurricane season which brought us Harvey, Maria, Irma. And we know that climate change is contributing to the harms from these types of extreme events.

With sea level rise, we've got storm surge that's now higher and able to reach further inland. Warmer sea surface temperatures are fueling storms, making them more powerful, intensifying them more quickly, as we saw with Florence and with Harvey and Maria. And in a warmer world what we're seeing is the atmosphere can hold more moisture, and that increases the potential for these record-breaking rainfall events that we saw with Harvey and now with Florence. So, all of this is a really sobering reminder that we've got to get out ahead of these kinds of impacts. We're already living in a warming world, where these impacts are bringing devastating harm to communities. We've got to do more to protect people well ahead of these events, not just in emergency-response mode. We've got to invest more in recovery that makes people come back in a more resilient fashion. And, of course, we've got to do our utmost to cut the carbon emissions that are fueling climate change.

About 45 minutes by car from San Juan, Puerto Rico, a beautiful beach town called Loquillo nestles between the Atlantic Ocean and the island’s famous rainforest, El Yunque. A few of my UCS colleagues recently traveled to Puerto Rico for a scientific conference in September 2018, making a stop in Loquillo, they told me it was hard to imagine that this tranquil coastal community was ever in danger. But of course, Hurricane Maria hit all of Puerto Rico hard in 2017. In Loquillo, the storm’s aftereffects were the scariest: with no power, scarce drinking water, and little aid from the government, locals had to band together to survive.

It’s been a year since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, when our federal government looked away, leaving thousands of Americans to die. In that year, many Puerto Ricans have united to help rebuild and navigate a sustainable recovery, finding a silver lining in their togetherness. As part of that effort, my colleagues were on the island to help kick-start the first-ever Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network, which is helping connect local scientists who work on energy, conservation, and issues of sustainability, to policymakers in the Puerto Rican government and the US federal government. The network will work together to find opportunities where scientists can advocate for policy decisions that will affect all Puerto Ricans, and push back together against any unscientific proposals made by the federal government.

My colleague Juan Declet-Barreto, a climate scientist with our Center for Science and Democracy, was among the UCSers who made the trip, along with podcast correspondent Abby Figueroa. They made some time while they were in Loquillo to talk about Hurricane Maria, recovery, why you should always listen to climate scientists, and how Puerto Rican scientists can help prevent the island government from creating more vulnerabilities to the storms that are ahead.

I’ll let Abby take it from here—but before I do, I encourage you to listen for the local fauna in the background. Loquillo is full of life!

Abby: Thanks, Colleen. Hi, Juan.

Juan: Hi.

Abby: Good morning.

Juan: Good morning.

Abby: Welcome to “Got Science.’

Juan: Thank you.

Abby: We are here in Luquillo, Puerto Rico and there’s a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean outside our window. Tell me a little bit about this place where we’re meeting today.

Juan: Well, Luquillo is a town in the north-eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It’s a beach town of about 20,000 people. It’s a town with beautiful beaches that I have a lot of fond memories of, because I used to come here and spend summers and all sorts of holidays with my family. And it’s a place that I had been eager to come back after Hurricane Maria, to see how it had fared since the hurricane came through.

And I’ve had a chance to talk to some people--some of the community members around here…had a chance of looking at what the town looks like and some of the economically depressed conditions that have followed Maria. But I am also very happy to come here and see some of the really fantastic work that local community members are doing to try to recover, to conduct and adjust recovery for their own communities and the island and to do a lot of important work on coastal conversation, protect wetlands and little bacterial habitats from encroaching development.

Abby:. It’s been about a year now since hurricane Maria came to Puerto Rico. What damages were experienced here in Luquillo?

Juan: Well, there were…a lot of structures were heavily damaged by winds. Fortunately for the people of Luquillo, because of the orientation of the coastline and the fact that the storm came in through the southeast, there wasn’t a whole lot of storm surge. So most of the damage appears to be from winds. But still, that also meant that power was knocked out for a long time and water was…potable water service was not available for a long time. The response of the Puerto Rican government and the…and FEMA and the federal government was also very slow. So that meant that people had to take matters in their own hands and band together to clear roadways, to take a trip up to the El Yunque National Forest, the rainforest where these communities get their water from.

So they had to clear roads and go open up the water systems that had been shut off by the water company to avoid those getting flooded and damaged.

Abby: So …people in the community themselves, without the heavy machinery and without the support of government…any government services…had to find potable water sources and clear out their…the roadways by themselves?

Juan: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I had a chance to talk to a local artisan who’s fashioning arts and crafts out of flotsam and jetsam and debris, wood debris for the most part. And he told me that in their small little community of maybe, like, a block or so--which is a…it’s a beachfront community next to a high-rise development--they didn’t have power, they didn’t have water. So they first had to clear the roads so they can get to the entrance to the rainforest, which in normal conditions, would be a 10-minute drive from where the community is.

They also set up community watches, they banded together as neighbors, they pooled resources. And the people who could cook would cook and the people who could operate some of the handheld machinery to…like buzz saws and so on…they operated them and cleared the roads. So it’s indicative to me that there are a lot of…that there are levels of social capital through which people bond and become resilient together as communities. And that social fabric seems to have strengthened in the aftermath of the hurricane, which to many of us under the current…or trajectory of development of urban development in Puerto Rico over the last 50 years or so, had been eroded.

And so, it gives you very ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, we have people, community members who say things like, “Well, we should be thanking Maria for what it did to us…what it did for us, because it has shown us our potential. It has allowed us to come back and unite together and…”

Abby: It’s finding something good out of a very bad experience?

Juan: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s testament to the ability of people to be resilient, to not just lament their lot in life, to say, “Well, you know, we had this terrible calamity that hit us, but we need to get up and we need to do something. And nobody’s going to do it for us, so we need to get ourselves together.”

Abby: Tell me a little bit about your work, your scientific work. And how does that intersect with the recovery efforts here in Puerto Rico? How are they related?

Juan: I am a geographer by training. I have expertise in geographic information systems and…which I used to map hazards like extreme heat and other kinds…and climatic impacts and the populations who live [00:06:30] exposed to those and the characteristics--the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics--of the populations that are exposed to those, to try to identify that intersection of populations and environmental hazards and impacts. I currently serve as a climate scientist in the climate and energy program in the…

Abby: At the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Juan: …at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where we are exploring what the future may hold in terms of extreme heat, based on what the climate scientists’ models are predicting that those temperatures may be.

Abby: Do you see a way that science can play a role here in Puerto Rico with the recovery efforts?

Juan: absolutely. Science has a fundamental role in the recovery of Puerto Rico, because scientists have studied, have researched. And the findings of that research has prompted scientists to warn the population, to warn the government and also the society that there are climate risks such as terrible storms like Maria, Irma and Harvey, that there is sea level rise impacts also that are making life difficult in coastal areas, that there is a need to transition away from climate-vulnerable energy systems, currently like the ones that are used in Puerto Rico, which mostly burn diesel and oil and other fossil fuels and are located in coastal areas, which create a sort of double whammy of vulnerability for those energy systems because they’re vulnerable to storm surges and to become flooded and inoperable.

But because they burn fossil fuels that come…that are imported from other countries, then they are subject to a lot of price volatility of fossil fuels in the global market.

Abby: It’s an interesting challenge and opportunity for Puerto Rico right now, because there’s so much that needs to be rebuilt. But it needs to be rebuilt not to the past standards, but rather for the future, for the climate change impacts that are coming over the next decades.

Juan: Right. That’s something that the scientific community in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican scientific community in the diaspora that is mostly in the United States has already…understands very well and has internalized: that there is a need to not repeat the mistakes of the past. We also have to contextualize this by understanding that Puerto Rico had been undergoing a massive economic contraction, fiscal crisis that had been brewing up over the last 40, 50 years that basically touched bottom maybe 10 years ago and that the 2017 hurricane season just basically magnified and made everything worse.

I was recently talking to a public health expert from Puerto Rico who was telling me that hurricane Maria didn’t destroy Puerto Rico, that Puerto Rico had already been destroyed 30 years ago by the fiscal crisis. And I thought that that being true, that that would mean that then, Maria is a sort of climatological broom that swept away the debris of the crumbling infrastructure in energetic infrastructure, housing infrastructure, transportation infrastructure that had not been adequately maintained and planned for, even designed for a tropical island with different kinds of topography, with a different set of needs and risks, inland and coastal.

Abby: We see that in community after community after natural disasters. Places that are more resilient will recover faster, but the ones that have other underlying structural problems, climate change impacts, natural disasters, end up amplifying the existing problems. Has that been your experience here in Puerto Rico, as you’ve been touring the island?

Juan: Yes. Yeah, I think so. The structural conditions of the islands, as a territory of the United States with a very limited way of Puerto Ricans to exercise their democratic rights and participate in the decision-making process that affects their everyday life, like the energy system, highways, transportation. Where do we import the things that we don’t produce and how much do those cost? All those things have all these impacts on peoples’ lives and that structure kind of preconditions a lot of the vulnerabilities of the population.

Then, the population resilience to that--through banding together, through developing that social capital, through forming neighborhood alliances and watches from the most informal source of organization of a couple of neighbors, to larger island-wide organization that engage with the public and private sector--provides a wide spectrum of opportunities for the Puerto Rican scientific community to engage and bring in those lessons. That the local experts, which are the residents, the residential communities who know their communities, who live with the hazards, who have a long historical memory of environmental change in their communities and are attached to those places--by culture, by race, by class, by a long history of just being there--can help strengthen that.

And that’s something that’s fairly…that’s not unique to Puerto Rico, but the way that it happens in Puerto Rico, it’s very specific and idiosyncratic, idiosyncratically Puerto Rican. And I don’t think that’s something that is necessarily understood or even known by people who live in the United States or in other places. Puerto Rico slides under the cultural radar of many people in the United States, even though it is a U.S. territory. And so, a lot of people, really, even in the States, do not quite understand where we are or what…literally, like, where we are--where is Puerto Rico--and if we’re Americans or not.


Abby: We know that recovery from a natural disaster takes time and sometimes, many, many years for a community to get back to where it was before a storm hit. It’s only been a year here in Puerto Rico, but can you see mistakes or missed opportunities in this first year of recovery that the government…you could have done better?

Juan: Yeah. I think that there have been some missed opportunities by the government to engage with the local energy sustainability experts in the island, to engage them in the conversations about how is the grid going to be rebuilt, the energy grid. Is it going to be rebuilt in a resilient way, or are we going to continue our dependence on fossil fuels? Are we going to rebuild the same power plants in the coastal areas and just basically ensuring that we will be in a very vulnerable situation in the next hurricane season? So definitely, I think there’s an opportunity for that. The Puerto Rican scientific community has been engaging in trying to do that and it…but it didn’t…the set of missed opportunities did not begin in the post-Maria period.

We’ve been talking to scientists who…Puerto Rican scientists that are engaged with communities who have been warning the Puerto Rican government for a couple decades that there was a need to start planning for Category Three, Four and Five hurricanes, because that’s what the climate model said. That science was ignored by the government authorities, saying that those were hypothetical models, implying that because they were computational models built on a computer simulation, that they were hypothetical, right? Well, they turned out to be very real, as we saw during Hurricane Hugo and…you know, something like 20 years ago, right…and as what we saw recently with hurricanes Maria and Irma.

And so, now, we are seeing some…a repeat of the mistakes of the past in that regard, because now, many of the Puerto Rican scientists are warning that for example, the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport in the northeastern part of the island in the coast is going to be chronically inundated and may be rendered unusable. And those warnings, it looks like they’re being ignored. There’s no…there doesn’t appear to be any sort of plan for that, which would be a process that will take a long time, right?

Abby: So if…hypothetical question. If you were appointed tomorrow by the governor of Puerto Rico to oversee the recovery, what would you do? I hear that you would be consulting with energy experts, you would be taking climate risks seriously, reconsidering the location of the airport. What else? What else would you do to make sure that recovery is both equitable and sustainable?

Juan: I would bring our local community experts from the residential communities who are actively engaged and bring them…invite them, bring them to the table…at the beginning of a process, together with climate scientists, planners, psychologists, sociologists, all sorts of experts--government officials, public policy makers, planners and so on--and start talking about what are the ways in which we can make this work for everybody. Because it seems like the priorities that are being addressed right now are the priorities of those who want to continue burning fossil fuels, of those within Puerto Rico also, who want to continue, for example, selling tires and so, have no investments in public transit and things like that.

Abby:. Speaking of experts, luckily, there are a lot of Puerto Rican scientists here on the island. And you came this week, specifically to meet with a new group called the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network. Tell us a little bit about that.

Juan: Yeah. This is very exciting to me. The Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network, or PRSPAN, is a collection of scientists focused on Puerto Rican issues, both from…Puerto Rican scientists in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora in the United States…who are very interested in engaging in the public policy process, who have expressly decided to do this, but want to be able to risk together as a community of scientists to develop tools to use the tools that are available to engage successfully in the public policy-making process. It’s very exciting to me as a UCS scientist, because it’s one of the things that can help make possible the full exercise of democratic rights in Puerto Rican society.

As we know, a healthy democracy needs access to data, needs an informed population. And that information comes from scientific knowledge and it comes from other sorts of knowledge that people from residential communities can contribute. And we are living in a political moment in the United States which impacts Puerto Rico, where all these attacks on science and scientific institutions and scientists’ ability to do their work and communicate the work to the public so that we can have a healthy planet and environments are coming under attack and are very worrisome.

And after the restructuring caused by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican scientists and the communities they serve are very worried that if a recovery is not made…it’s not done in a sustainable and resilient way that prepares us for the challenges of the future, that then, we’re going to be facing the same post-Maria situations that we faced.

Abby: So what will the future look like for Puerto Rico? We know that certain climate impacts are unavoidable at this point. What does life look like on the island by mid-century or end of the century?

Juan: Well, we know that the planet and the Caribbean region is going to continue getting hotter. The Caribbean has been under a sustained drought for a long time, which has impact and have impacts on extreme heat and health and agriculture and so on. We also know that sea level rise is projected to have coastal areas chronically inundated. The farther out in time that goes on and we don’t do something to address carbon emissions, then the worse that those impacts would become and the longer we’ll be locked in into to irreversible changes, because of CO2 that’s already emitted that will have a long life in the atmosphere.

Abby: Are there lessons from Puerto Rico’s recovery, post-Maria, that other communities in the United States can learn from?

Juan: Definitely. I think that…one of the biggest lessons that we can learn from this experience in Puerto Rico would be that planning for the climate risks that scientists have long warned us about is instrumental, that the time to start thinking about developing a resilient grid or transportation infrastructure or housing infrastructure is not right after we get hit by a monstrosity of the size of Maria, that that should have been done 20, 30, 40 years ago, when scientists started predicting and sounding the alarm on these issues.

Abby: Great. Juan, thank you so much for talking to us today. Any final thoughts?

Abby:. Juan, thank you so much for talking to us today. Puerto Rico is a beautiful place. Any final thoughts, or one place I should definitely go to on the island before I leave?

Juan: Oh, wow. You should check out El Yunque National Forrest. It’s a rainforest with the most beautiful tropical canopies that you can see. It’s a fantastic place.

You should check out…the northern coastal plains are very, very fertile plains. If you drive on one of the freeways west, they’re lovely. They’re fantastic, they are…the lands are made of limestone that runs off from the Cordillera Central towards the…on the northern side of the island. And it’s a beautiful…it’s a really, really beautiful sight. And I think having the opportunity…for me, having the opportunity of coming to Puerto Rico as a UCS scientist is kind of closing a circle for me, because we always want to be relevant, right? And one of the concerns that many of us in the diaspora always have is that we’re going to go away from Puerto Rico and we’re never going to come back and we’re never going to be able to give anything back to the island.

Well, we now have that opportunity. We have a community of scientists who we don’t need to convince that they need to get involved in these issues, because by virtue of being scientists, by virtue of being residential community members, they have internalized that people have to band together, to demand it, to demand the changes that are going to get us on a resilient and prosperous future. And that’s…I would encourage the people listening to this podcast to come and visit Puerto Rico, to have a look.

There’s a lot of negativity in the news, which can be quite depressing. But you come down here and you see that people are resisting the idea of being locked into a non-resilient future

Abby: Juan, thank you so much.

Juan: You’re welcome.

Abby: Okay, back to you, Colleen.

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Special thanks: Juan Declet-Barreto
Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Special thanks to our Spanish podcast team:

Correspondent: Abby Figueroa
Host: Gabriela Artavia
Editing: Luis Castilla
Translation: Maria Vidart


This episode is also available in Spanish.

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