From Puerto Rico's ruins, an opportunity to build back better

A bold, innovative vision is emerging for how to rebuild after hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the island's shattered infrastructure. But some worry the staggering challenges could overshadow it.

Good Samaritans from the Puerto Rican town of Isabela pray with fellow islanders in the municipality of Utuado.

As Puerto Rico continues the slow process of recovery from September’s near-knockout one-two punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the phrase “build back better” has become something of a mantra.

From the governor’s office to still-dark industrial parks, from roofless homes to flattened community health centers, the imperative to “reconstruir mejor” has sprouted as quickly as the fresh green shoots bursting from the swaths of bowed trees that now define the tropical island’s landscape.

Speaking Thursday to a convention of Puerto Rican builders, Governor Ricardo Rosselló said that in the wake of the destruction of Maria, the island was at a crossroads where it could choose to build a more resilient future, with safer roads, better-placed schools and housing, and a stronger health system.

"This is a grand opportunity for Puerto Rico to rebuild in a planned and correct manner," he said.  

The rallying cry captures the mounting conviction that Maria, which roared across Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, was not a fluke. For many here, it was likely the harbinger of a new reality in the Caribbean, and as a result, much must change.

That means no traditional wood-and-corrugated-metal home construction, no decades-old shore-front development model, no centralized power generation system dependent on imported fuels.

But “building back better” won’t happen by repeating an appealing slogan. It requires new thinking and a unity of purpose and political cooperation (both in Puerto Rico and between the US territory and the federal government). And recovery is further challenged by a preexisting economic crisis.

Many hope the frustrations of the slow-motion recovery will be outweighed by the exhilarating sense of opportunity. It’s the idea that Puerto Rico can serve as the laboratory for a new model of resilience in the era of climate change.

“We still have so many immediate needs to tend to ... but at the same time, so many of us feel we in Puerto Rico now have an unexpected opportunity to do things in a new way,” says Isabel Rullán, founder and director of ConPRmetidos, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainable community development and connecting young entrepreneurs with Puerto Rico’s influential diaspora.

“Many are things we have talked about and even started working toward [before the storms], like a sustainable building and development model,” she says. “But now they seem more urgent. I think we have a chance to work together as a country to try something new and better.”

Constructing a better Puerto Rico will take more thinkers like Ms. Rullán, many experts say.

Operating from the Foundation for Puerto Rico, a beehive of activity in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Rullán is focused on getting micro solar units and batteries to communities still without power more than five weeks after the storms. Around her, other 20-somethings from a collection of nonprofits organize food distribution, medical caravans, and roof-tarp deliveries.

Across Puerto Rico, volunteers from the island and elsewhere have joined the thousands of military and civil defense personnel addressing still-staggering needs. Teams of engineers put temporary covers on roofless houses, doctors fan out to remote communities, and groups like Rullán’s provide the means of supplying darkened communities with temporary lighting.

Rullán says she’s determined not to let immediate recovery efforts obscure the longer-term potential of the moment.

A stratospheric balloon takes off for Puerto Rico from a project site in Nevada. Such balloons can replace downed cell towers and provide internet access.

But many Puerto Ricans are worried that the impulse to think in bold new ways about the future will be crushed under the weight of the island’s slow recovery and chronic economic and political challenges.

“After Maria, nobody in Puerto Rico thinks we should just build things back the way they were, that we should proceed like nothing has changed, because everyone knows things can’t be the same,” says Jorge Fernández-Porto, executive director of the Puerto Rican Senate’s Commission for Development of Community Initiatives.

“But when you get up every day and it seems nothing has changed – the power lines are still in the street, businesses are not opening, too many people still don’t have electricity and clean water – it’s depressing,” he says. “It risks drowning this hope of turning a disaster into an opportunity.”

Indeed, not everyone is able to envision these disasters as an opportunity. Many Puerto Ricans – United States citizens with the ability to move at will to the mainland – are heading for the exits. Some estimate that as many as 1,000 people are leaving daily. With this accelerated rate of departure, by 2020 the island’s population could fall below 3 million for the first time in 70 years.

Puerto Rico’s exodus is not new: Some 500,000 have moved to the mainland over the past two decades. But the profile of those departing now is particularly worrisome: Young families concerned about schools and jobs make up a large part of the mix. So do university students and budding professionals who may be the needed engines of change and new thinking.

“There’s no question we’ll suffer a significant loss of productivity, of both the practical and intellectual types,” Mr. Fernández-Porto says.

Some establishments open, many not

In central San Juan many restaurants are open, and some shopping malls are humming again – good spots for those still without power to charge cellphones. But elsewhere, many businesses are quiet and industrial parks appear to be on long-term holiday. Some iconic tourist resorts have locked their gates, and hotel groups like Marriott have announced that some of their Puerto Rico hotels will remain closed for as long as two years.

While the damage and lost productivity from hurricanes Harvey and Irma are valued at $150 billion in Texas and Florida, Maria alone is estimated to have caused $100 billion in similar losses in Puerto Rico. No more than a quarter of the island’s economic activity is thought to be up and running.

That picture would be dire enough, but Maria’s blow comes on top of a debilitating debt crisis and a dozen years of recession. The economy shrank by a quarter in that period, in part a result of Washington rescinding decades-old business tax incentives. Often referred to as the Western Hemisphere’s Greece, Puerto Rico has been in federal bankruptcy court since May in an effort to stave off creditors and restructure the island’s $73 billion debt.

Experts fear that wrangling over the debt and how to keep the island afloat could smother the nascent conversation about how to go forward.

“I see two big roadblocks that risk sidelining the ‘build back better’ effort before it really takes off, and both have to do with government – both on the island and between the island and the federal government,” says Dante Disparte, chairman of the American Security Project’s Business Council for American Security and an active member of Washington’s Puerto Rican community.

“One is the lack of trust among leaders and a lack of transparency in governing institutions,” he says. But there’s also the debt burden: “How can you have a productive discussion on building a better future when you don’t know how you’re going to pay wages and keep essential services going?”

Congress last month sent President Trump a $36 billion disaster bill that includes a $5 billion lifeline for Puerto Rico. But experts say that is only the tip of what will be necessary.

“We should all be able to agree on the idea of building back better, but problems arise as soon as you take the next step and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ ” says Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York’s Hunter College.

He points to the need to rebuild more than 100,000 damaged or destroyed homes. “Just saying the obvious, that houses must be built better, isn’t enough,” he says. “You need policies and new standards to guide and enforce that,” which can “run up against entrenched interests.”

Still, Mr. Disparte is among those who remain optimistic that Puerto Rico’s recovery can be something of a global model.

“We have a chance to build the textbook case of what resilience and sustainability can look like, particularly in terms of climate change, and that’s exciting,” he says.

Laboratory for big thinkers

Already, Puerto Rico post-Maria is serving as a laboratory for big thinkers.

Last month, Elon Musk met with Governor Rosselló to discuss how Tesla’s technology for solar panels and energy storage batteries could help revolutionize energy delivery here. By late October, the technology was powering San Juan’s Children’s Hospital – a project that Mr. Musk declared just the first of many.

Also in October, Google parent company Alphabet announced it would launch “internet balloons” into the stratosphere above Puerto Rico to replace downed cell towers. Several balloons are now aloft, providing internet access in remote areas of the island.

Disparte says he believes that spirit of innovation and desire to demonstrate solutions to global challenges could even prompt Amazon to choose Puerto Rico for its much-ballyhooed second headquarters project. Puerto Rico’s economic development authority joined 238 North American cities in submitting a proposal.

“If you consider how these big innovators think, the idea of an Amazon choosing Puerto Rico makes sense, both from a practical business perspective – the island has a capable bilingual workforce – and from the loftier image perspective,” Disparte says. “The island’s rebuilding project offers Amazon the opportunity not just to be an anchor tenant in this model” for sustainable development in the era of climate change, “but to change the arc of history.”

That said, Amazon choosing an island with debilitated infrastructure and housing stock for its new headquarters seems like a long shot.

It’s no coincidence that the Tesla and Google projects were among the first new initiatives. Energy and telecommunications have emerged as two of the biggest challenges for the “build better” vision.

The island’s antiquated and bankrupt electrical generation and distribution enterprise, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, was a major impediment to progress before the storms. It’s a centralized system that relies largely on imported fuels, with plants far from population centers.

Replacing the system with one that incorporates a significant role for renewable energy sources and community-empowering microgrid innovations will almost certainly emerge as a key test of the island’s ability to advance its vision of a better-built future.

“Most of the infrastructure will be replaced, so this is the moment to begin an electric energy revolution,” says Efraín O’Neill-Carrillo, director of the Power Quality & Energy Studies Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. “A more [decentralized and community-based] approach should guide the reconstruction, which could not only result in a faster recovery in some areas, but would also support the much-needed transformation of Puerto Rico’s electric infrastructure.”

Still, delivering an “energy revolution” will require the kind of new thinking that is nourishing the “build back better” vision.

Creating effective energy policies is more difficult than the island’s economic challenges, says Dr. O’Neill-Carrillo. “Renewable-based microgrids entail going from passive users to engaged energy actors. This new energy vision requires ... new responsibilities for the government, the workforce, and the citizenry.”

No one thinks the “build back better” vision is assured. But the possibility of improvement has pushed many here to action.

Back at the Foundation for Puerto Rico, where Rullán is organizing the next round of solar battery distributions, New Yorker David Ramirez finds himself back in the neighborhoods of his childhood. Mr. Ramirez left when he was 18, but today is distributing water, helping with house repairs, and trying to “keep people’s hope alive,” he says. He wants to make sure this opportunity to reimagine Puerto Rico isn’t lost.

“This is a turning point on the island. You really get the feeling that out of this disaster could come something different and better if people here seize the opportunity,” says Ramirez, who is developing an online furniture rental business in New York.

“This terrible disruptive storm could end up being seen as Santa Maria, the savior of the island,” Ramirez says. “Or, it could all turn out negative. “A lot of us want to help, but it’s going to depend on the people here and whether or not they figure out how to use this opportunity.”

– Staff writer Joseph Dussault contributed reporting from New York.

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