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Finding resilience in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

Shalanda Baker and Laura Kuhl
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Shalanda Baker (left) is a Professor in the School of Law at Northeastern University (NU). She teaches courses at the law school and in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities related to her research interests in environmental law and energy law.  Laura Kuhl (right) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the International Affairs Program at NU. Her research examines climate adaptation and resilience in developing countries.

How do you define resilience?  From the very beginning, this question has animated our project, Interrogating Resilience:  An Analysis of Inequality and Vulnerability Pre-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.  In our initial research visit to Puerto Rico in June, we discovered the complex manifestations of resilience as reflected in community-managed aqueducts high up in Puerto Rico’s mountains; community centers providing much-needed food, electricity, and human resources in the wake of the storm; and, of course, the thousands of people who have chosen to stay in Puerto Rico after Maria, a devastating Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 MPH, which made landfall there in September of 2017.[1]  Our close colleagues, Marla Perez and Cecilio Ortiz, directors of the Institute for Sustainable Energy (INESI) at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), graciously curated our initial investigatory visit to Puerto Rico, where we began to scratch out an understanding of Puerto Rico’s resilience.

On our first full day in Puerto Rico, we made our way to UPR’s Ponce campus to participate in and observe a meeting convened by INESI.  For four hours, energy stakeholders and community leaders from several different communities on Puerto Rico’s main island assembled to share their stories concerning community-led management of natural resources.  Inspired by this meeting, the next day we journeyed high up into the mountains on the west side of the main island to visit the community of Corcovada de Añasco.  Our hosts, Iris and Cesar Irizarry, respectively the current and former leaders of the community aqueduct, walked us through a brief history of the community’s aqueduct.

Shalanda Baker. Iris Corcovada and Laura Kuhl
Shalanda Baker, Iris Irizarry and Laura Kuhl

In our day-long visit, the pair discussed the many ways the aqueduct, as the only source of clean water for residents, reflects the very spirit of the community.  Our tour of Corcovada gave us a first-hand opportunity to observe how the aqueduct connects to nearly every aspect of life:  education, public health, and energy, among others.  Further, we learned how the system for aqueduct management provides for community accountability that weaves everyone, even the most economically vulnerable, into the community fabric.

Cesar Corcovada
Cesar Irizarry

This water management system reflects a certain type of resilience, and we were surprised to learn that the system is replicated throughout the territory.  The hours spent with Iris and Cesar made us curious to understand more about the interconnection among water, electricity, and resilience, and whether the systems of resource management, in place long before Maria made landfall, rendered certain communities better able to bounce back from the storm.

On the surface at least, Puerto Rican resilience very much mirrors the resilience defined by ecologist C.S. Holling:  the capacity of a system to undergo extensive exogenous pressure and maintain its essential shape and function;[2] however, the more we engaged community members, scholars, and various stakeholders across Puerto Rico’s landscape, we also came to understand more insidious forms of resilience.  Along the Southern portion of the main island, exists an expanse of communities that comprise the so-called “Hungry Corridor.”  Even before Hurricane Maria, the stretch, reaching from just outside of San Juan to outside of Ponce, faced unique environmental burdens.  Communities along the Hungry Corridor, such as Coquí, have long lived in the shadows of the territory’s petrochemical and fossil-fuel burning energy facilities, and housed the majority of the world’s pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities.

Climate justice scholars and environmental justice scholars have long noted that, due to pre-existing vulnerabilities such as degraded air and water resources, poor communities and communities of color will suffer disproportionately in the wake of climate change events.  Hurricane Maria laid bare this truth as well for the Hungry Corridor.  And yet, on our initial visit, we observed that these communities appeared particularly resilient.  We noted that, after the storm, community centers in these under-resourced communities became beacons for information, materials, and innovation.  In Coquí, energy supplied by solar panels mounted to the rooftop of the community building provided much needed power to charge cellphones and other devices, providing a critical lifeline for the community’s residents.

Coqui Solar Panels
Coquí Solar Panels

We understood these activities as a type of resilience, but our engagement with resilience in environmental justice communities along the Hungry Corridor aims to go further.  Although the community members we met and observed during our trip illustrated a remarkable capacity to “bounce back,” we are concerned with the resilience of the unequal and unjust circumstances into which they have returned.  We wish to interrogate the resilient features of the policies and laws that have created environmental and climate vulnerability within the communities along the Hungry Corridor, and then offer alternatives.

Our project will attempt to map the divergent strains of resilience we encountered this June, strains which often appeared to be in tension throughout our weeklong visit. As energy and climate scholars who have set out to interrogate resilience, we are certain to find the journey ahead complex and compelling.

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Interrogating resilience: An analysis of inequality and vulnerability in pre-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico is funded through a Global Resilience Institute seed grant. The seed grant program supports multi-disciplinary research in seven strategic focus areas that draw on the diversity of resilience-related expertise that already exists at Northeastern University. This includes research capacity in network science, health sciences, coastal and urban sustainability, engineering, cyber-security and privacy, social and behavioral sciences, public policy, urban affairs, business, law, game design, architecture, and geospatial analysis. To learn more about GRI’s seed grant program, or to see the other funded projects, visit: globalresilience.northeastern.edu/research/seed-grant-funding/

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Sources:

[1] https://www.weather.gov/sju/maria2017

[2] Holling, C. S. (1973). “Resilience and stability of ecological systems.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics: 1-23.