Puerto Rico emerges as 'incubator' for disaster preparedness efforts

A view of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by: Laura Pontiggia / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico more than three years ago, a nonprofit maternal health center opened its doors and “did what we had to do,” during the month the building went without power, according to Vanessa Caldari, director at Centro MAM.

Mothers without power in their San Juan homes had to throw away large supplies of frozen breast milk and others struggled to find clean water sources to make formula for their babies.

“Puerto Rico is on the frontlines of climate change. So what we are seeing here is a reflection of things that can happen everywhere else.”

— Vanessa Caldari, director, Centro MAM

Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands can expect to face future record-breaking storms, as warming oceans increase the chance of more intense hurricanes, scientists say. Centro MAM will be ready for the next extreme weather event, Caldari said, with a new solar power installation system that can detach like legos, and be stored away to wait out a destructive hurricane that could damage traditional solar panels.

“It reduces anxiety. We know that if we lose power we can still operate, we can still be an oasis for families,” Caldari said during a recent interview at the center, a bright space adorned with birthing balls and hanging note cards with phrases like, “Tengo el poder,” meaning, “I have the power.”

Puerto Rico has struggled with recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria, which killed 3,057 in the Caribbean in September 2017. But along the way, new climate and economic resilience innovations are positioning it as an incubator for other disaster-prone regions seeking safeguarding solutions, according to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“A lot of the resilience that is being shown every single day here is exactly the way forward. It’s not waiting for some one size fits all solution,” Clinton said during a site visit to Centro MAM, which is supported by a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to provide solar panel installations and training to women.

“It’s not just one center — it is a model that can be replicated in other places. The removable panel idea is brilliant. It is so incredibly smart to think that if we have more storms you would take that down and store it,” Clinton continued.

The fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative Action Network on Post-Disaster Recovery meeting in San Juan last week announced new disaster recovery and preparedness commitments worth $386 million, including $100 million in business growth in Puerto Rico.

The day before the convening, former U.S. President Bill Clinton toured multiple local operations backed by CGI commitments. He listened quietly as mental health practitioners described new partnerships to increase mental health services for disaster victims, and met with graduates of a new small business incubation training program in a mountainous, rural area outside of San Juan.

Many of these CGI-supported projects, such as an initiative to rebuild resilient watershed systems in vulnerable communities, are short-term projects. There’s a need to broaden partnerships to ensure their sustainability, Clinton said.

“This should be a matter that is debated and discussed openly. It is, ‘What do you think the long term needs of the area are? Secondly, the philanthropic community and the business community need to be brought into this, so that if the government aid gets people back to square one, then we go to two, three, four, and five in a normal development way,” Clinton said.

“Every one of these things needs systems that can go on. You cannot just be episodic, you cannot take every problem that happens and have an episodic response. You say, ‘OK, let’s fix this,’ but what would you want it to look like five years from now, what should it look like 10 years from now?”

Physical signs of Hurricane Maria’s damage are no longer clearly visible across most of San Juan and the surrounding mountain and coastal towns. But the recovery efforts have been slow over the last few years, hampered by delayed federal funding and local government issues, including a $129 billion debt crisis. And about 130,000 Puerto Ricans have moved away since 2017, many as a direct result of the hurricane.

More cooperation and resilience innovation has become increasingly evident in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands over the last few years, according to Greg Milne, chief impact and foreign policy officer at the Clinton Foundation. The definition of climate resilience has also evolved to become more complex, Milne explained.

“Two or three years ago, people thought of it as having more hurricane ties on their roofs, or having enough sandbags on hand to prevent flooding. Now I think people think of it as, ‘we need to have solar energy, we need to have watershed irrigation plans,’ and that is being integrated into a lot of what we are seeing,” Milne told Devex.

“There is a great sense of cooperation and innovation and many of the models have the potential to be scaled to the mainland, to elsewhere in the world. The Caribbean is really becoming an incubator for these best ideas,” Milne continued.

Back at Centro MAM, Caldari also reflected on the independence the new solar panels offer her team, which serves about 100 families each year with midwifery and other maternal and child health services. The Hispanic Federation and the Puerto Rican network Solar Libre plan to equip about 200 community centers with the panels, and have other projects underway to promote energy and clean water self-sufficiency.

“Part of resilience is that we really are working towards learning how to depend on us, really nurturing the power we have as women,” Caldari explained. “I always say Puerto Rico is on the frontlines of climate change. So what we are seeing here is a reflection of things that can happen everywhere else.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.