Putting the PR in “PRacticum”: Identifying Planning Lessons from Puerto Rico

By Roberto Porro, Coastal Program Manager, National Disaster Preparedness Training Center

Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico as a strong Category 4 hurricane on September 20, 2017. The storm severely impacted the entire island, causing the complete failure of the power distribution system, disrupting key road and logistical networks, displacing a significant portion of the population, and devastating coastal properties and beaches. One year after the storm, the island is still struggling to regain its feet and start what will be a years-long recovery process.  

As an island in the Pacific Ocean, Oahu shares many similarities with Puerto Rico in terms of its isolation, natural resources, economic drivers, as well as its vulnerabilities to extreme events such as Hurricane Maria.  The similarities between these two islands and the opportunity to learn from this extreme event provided the motivation behind the Summer 2018 Planning Practicum course at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  This planning practicum, named the Island Community Resilience Initiative (ICRI), focused on identifying lessons from Hurricane Maria for Oahu and other islands.  Part of the Masters in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) curriculum, the Practicum requires students to work with a client – in this case the City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency (CCSR) and the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center (NDPTC) at the University of Hawaii – to address a planning related challenge.  For this project, the class of 8 students developed a set of planning recommendations to inform current initiatives of each client.

Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency 

As part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Network (100RC), Oahu’s Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) is tasked with developing a Resilience Strategy for Oahu. The strategy development process (Figure 1) includes two main phases and considers implementation following the launch of the strategy: Preliminary Resilience Assessment, Discovery Area Analysis, and Implementation. After kicking off the process with the Agenda Setting Workshop in June 2017, the CRO and CCSR recently launched Phase II in August 2018, which includes examining potential resilience strategies within four Discovery Areas (see, “Resilient O‘ahu Update” ). This Practicum aims to contribute to this process, by providing recommendations to inform the work under the “Bouncing Forward” Discovery Area, which focuses on identifying actions to increase the resilience of Oahu to natural disasters. Practicum research focused on questions related to physical and social vulnerabilities, community-level actions, and long-term recovery.

Figure 1: The Oahu Resilience Strategy Development Process. Practicum aims to contribute to Phase II of the process. [Source: Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency]

National Disaster Preparedness Training Center

The NDPTC develops and delivers FEMA-certified training courses related to natural hazards and disaster management, with a special focus on islands and coastal communities. NDPTC delivers its training courses across all states and territories, including Puerto Rico. Since 2010, NDPTC has delivered over 34 courses in Puerto Rico, training roughly 1,000 people.  

One of NDPTC’s courses is particularly relevant to the situation in Puerto Rico – Community Planning for Disaster Recovery. This course provides an overview of recovery planning guidance and principles, and outlines the critical steps and elements of the recovery planning process. The practicum students attended and assisted deliveries of this course in both Honolulu and San Juan, giving them an understanding of recovery planning concepts as well as an opportunity to hear first-hand challenges from local participants. Through student research and observations, the practicum aimed to provide recommendations to NDPTC on training needs and improvements to existing training.  

Figure 2: Practicum students during the delivery of NDPTC’s course, Community Planning for Disaster Recovery, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. [Image: R. Porro]

Lessons from the Ground

The Practicum included a 7-day research trip to Puerto Rico in early June 2018, where the team met with key local stakeholders and researchers. This included the Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program, the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Planning, NOAA Office for Coastal Management, FEMA Joint Recovery Office staff, as well as various community members from sites visited across the island. Through the observations and data collected on the trip, the students extracted key lessons from the experiences of Hurricane Maria and developed recommendations associated with three key planning themes: Governance, Risk Management, and Land Use.  

Governance – Recognizing the importance of community capacity to surviving and recovering from Hurricane Maria, key recommendations related to governance include leveraging and integrating social capital and cohesion into regional planning processes.  Recommended strategies for building knowledge, cohesion, and capacity at the community level, while integrating community input and assets into planning processes include expanding citizen science efforts to raise awareness and inform planning, establishing knowledge sharing platforms between and within communities, and creating resilience hubs in the most isolated and vulnerable communities.

Figure 3: A destroyed segment of coastal road in Loiza, Puerto Rico - an isolated and socially vulnerable community just east of San Juan. The community is served by one coastal highway and was inaccessible for weeks after the storm. [Image: R. Porro]

Risk Management – The interdependencies and multipliers of risk in an island setting were highlighted during Hurricane Maria, particularly when it came to critical systems such as power and supply chains.  This impacts not only the recovery of communities and individuals, but also of small businesses and the economy.  Key recommendations include building the capacity of small businesses and organizations to manage this risk by encouraging, training, and supporting continuity planning.    

Figure 4: Crowley shipping containers at the Port of San Juan. Crowley is the island’s main shipping company – comparable to Matson in Hawaii. [Image: C. Weygan-Hildebrand]

Land Use – Entire communities and vast stretches of coastline were destroyed during the storm, wiping away beaches and sinking buildings and homes.  Recognizing that this is a plausible scenario for Oahu, thinking through recovery strategies prior to a disaster can greatly expedite the recovery process.  Key recommendations include developing a pre-disaster recovery plan and establishing regulatory tools, such as Recovery Overlay Zones, to implement pre-planned recovery strategies after an event.  

Figure 5: A destroyed section of coastline in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Nine months after the storm, large stretches of beach remained eroded and structures and debris had yet to be removed. Rincon is a coastal community which relies heavily on beach-related tourism, similar to the North Shore of Oahu. [Image: R. Porro]

“Islands Need to Stick Together” 

This was a common phrase heard during the trip, highlighting the vulnerabilities and challenges shared by island communities.  A key insight shared by the former San Juan CRO, Alejandra Castrodad-Rodriguez, was to “plan everything within an island context”.  When it comes to islands, preparedness and planning at the smallest scales is crucially important.  This type of planning can be informed and facilitated through the sharing of lessons and fostering of relationships both within and across island communities.  From this practicum, it is hoped that seeds have been planted for continued collaboration and sharing between Hawaii and Puerto Rico partners.  Through these relationships, knowledge can be gained, lessons can be learned, and resilience can be achieved.

Figure 6: PRacticum team members with students from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and partners from the Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program [Image: R. Porro]

PRacticum Team: Dr. Karl Kim (Practicum Faculty Instructor), Roberto Porro (Practicum Adviser), Lily Bui (Project Support), Shubhanshu Jain, Imelda Carlos, Cody Winchester, John Canner, Carolyn Weygan-Hildebrand, Scott Allen, Bernie Gonzalez, Matthew Fernandez.

Acknowledgments:  City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency; National Disaster Preparedness Training Center; Puerto Rico Sea Grant College Program; Hawaii Sea Grant College Program; University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Planning; and the NOAA Office for Coastal Management.