Puerto Rico’s Vulnerable Communities Remain Exposed to the Next Storm

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

Almost a year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico, hurricane season is again well underway. Many have been asking whether the island is ready should another major storm hit. FEMA, having been heavily criticized for its response to the hurricanes — criticisms that were reflected in its own internal review — has been assuring the public that the island is prepared this time around. The situation on the ground, however, tells another story.

In mid-August, I returned with Refugees International to Puerto Rico — my third visit over the past year — to assess progress toward recovery. We returned to some of the hardest hit areas to meet with local community leaders, civil society organizations, and affected households. These encounters left us alarmed. Not only has the pace of recovery been slow, but many of the most vulnerable households are now equally if not more exposed than before and many communities have been left out of recovery efforts.

According to FEMA officials, the agency has taken significant measures to address past problems and put in place new preparedness measures. The agency has stockpiled massive amounts of emergency meals, bottled water, and tarps. Aware of the possibility of another wide-scale power outage — not unlikely given the fragile state of the repairs to the grid — FEMA has pre-positioned generators and water pumps to be available to local hospitals. FEMA has also been conducting preparedness activities with its Puerto Rican counter-part, PREMA, and with mayors.

Yet, traveling across the island, we encountered frontline communities that remained dangerously exposed. Repairs for hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed by last year’s hurricanes remain incomplete. Many homes still have “blue roofs,” the temporary roofs installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed to last 30 days until more durable repairs can be made. As Refugees International previously reported, the installation of blue roofs in Puerto Rico took months. Worse yet, by denying the aid applications of more than half of the people whose homes were damaged or destroyed, FEMA has left many unable to afford more permanent repairs, let alone build them back to safer standards.

The lack of FEMA assistance is particularly distressing given the high levels of poverty across the island. Now that Congress has generously appropriated billions of dollars to support the island to recover, funding must target the most vulnerable and ensure they are supported to build back safer and more resilient homes and communities. However, we found evidence that the public and civil society organizations are being left out of the Puerto Rican government’s recovery plans, creating a risk that private and political interests will hold sway.

But the problem does not end here. Equally concerning is the fact that FEMA’s and PREMA’s preparedness activities appear to fail to recognize one of the most important lessons that emerged from the disaster: the need to put communities at the center of disaster management.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, it was members of the community who ensured that the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and other vulnerable individuals got help long before local or federal government authorities arrived. Neighbors took care of each other.

Community leaders mobilized resources and helped those in need. And they did so largely on their own without support from FEMA or PREMA. Yet, none of the local leaders or civil society groups we met have been meaningfully included in FEMA’s disaster preparedness training or activities.

FEMA must rethink its overall approach in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The agency must ask itself how it can better support communities themselves to better prepare for and respond to disasters. This will require expanding from a largely top-down approach to supporting communities from the ground up. Community-based disaster risk management, or CBDRR, recognizes that when disasters strike, it is community members who are the first responders. Hardly a new concept, CBDRR is widely recognized as a best practice globally including by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Central to CBDRR are strong public participation, prioritizing the most vulnerable, and supporting local civil society organizations in disaster preparedness and response.

Over the last decade with Refugees International, I’ve borne witness to some of the worst natural disasters in recent history. The response to the Puerto Rico disaster was among the most problematic I’ve seen due largely to its top-down, overly bureaucratic approach. If a similar fate is to be avoided in this hurricane season and in the future, FEMA and other federal and state agencies must rethink their approach.

Building back a more resilient Puerto Rico must start at the community level. It must include civil society. Resources must channel directly to the most vulnerable households and communities. Most importantly, for the effort to succeed, it must be owned by the people of Puerto Rico and not driven by decisions taken thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.

Alice Thomas is the climate displacement program manager at Refugees International. She has conducted three research missions to Puerto Rico since hurricanes Irma and Maria, most recently in August 2018. Thomas is the author of “Meeting The Urgent Needs Of Hurricane Maria Survivors In Puerto Rico,” a report on humanitarian needs on the island after the storms.