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From Disaster to Transformation: Lessons from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane María

On September 2017 Puerto Rico experienced one of the most catastrophic hurricane seasons in recent history. Hurricane María pummeled the island’s power, water, communications, and transportation infrastructure. Weeks after the event, the entire population lacked power, access to water, and telecommunications, and more than six months later many are still lacking access to electricity. The National Weather Service has referred to these extreme events as ‘unprecedented… and beyond anything experienced’. Yet, climate scientists have long been warning us that this is the new climate normal. Thus, it is no longer a question of whether we will experience a new climate reality with more frequent, higher magnitude storm events; some people are already living it. Furthermore, the experience of Puerto Rico demonstrates that these climate events are not just natural disasters, but the outcomes of interactions among three sets of interdependent systems: the climate-biophysical systems, engineered systems, and human systems.

On February 23 and 24, we held a two-day workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, titled From Disaster to Transformation: Lessons from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane María. This event brought together researchers, students, decision-makers, practitioners, civic organizations, and city residents alike to reflect on the experiences of those who lived through Hurricane María, the current situation, and the opportunities and challenges to promote resilience to extreme events in San Juan and Puerto Rico in general.

The first day included presentations by Pablo Méndez Lázaro (UPR, Medical Sciences), Jenniffer Santos Hernández (UPR, Río Piedras), Ariel Lugo (USDA International Institute of Tropical Forestry), Fernando Abruña (Musgraves & Abruña, Inc.), and Ingrid Vila Biaggi (CAMBIO) on the current situation and challenges for building resilience. Nancy Grimm (Arizona State University) presented on the goals of the UREx SRN and the resources that it can provide to support transitions to climate resilience.

We were also fortunate to have the participation of practitioners and researchers from other cities, nationally and internationally, to share their experiences in disaster response and resilience efforts after experiencing similar disasters in other cities including Miami, New Orleans, and New York City: Kristin Baja (Urban Sustainability Directors Network), Steve Fisher (Tetra Tech), Pete Gómez (City of Miami), Katherine Greig (UPenn, Wharton Risk Center), Joshua Lewis (Tulane University, The ByWater Institute), Sue Mobley (Tulane School of Architecture), Fernando Rivera (University of Central Florida), Paty Romero-Lankao (National Center for Atmospheric Research), and Shannon Scribner (Oxfam America).

To access some of the presentations given on the first day (Friday, February 23rd) please go to the following link: Meeting Presentations


The second day included the participation of residents and leaders from various communities in the Municipality of San Juan in dialogues and activities aimed at co-learning from their personal and community experiences in preparing, responding, and addressing the challenges to rebuild their community in the aftermath of Hurricane María. Participants shared lessons and ideas for building community resilience to extreme weather events

Photos from both days can be accessed here: Meeting Photos

The two-day workshop provided a unique opportunity for multiple sectors and groups to learn and reflect upon on the social, governance, ecological, and technological processes that contributed to the disaster and to stimulate further dialogues and connections to promote resilience strategies and solutions.

For more information about the event please contact Tischa A. Muñoz-Erickson (tamunozerickson@fs.fed.us) or Pablo Méndez Lázaro (pablo.mendez1@upr.edu).