Malu Blázquez highlights ReImagina’s proposed urgent actions for the post-earthquake recovery process in Puerto Rico.
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The recent earthquakes have demonstrated, once again, that we aren’t prepared to deal with natural disasters and that it is imperative that we increase Puerto Rico’s resilience to face future threats. ReImagina was created to serve as a unifying voice among a wide range of Puerto Rican groups with the main purpose of developing actionable and timely recommendations to rebuild the country in a way that strengthens it physically, economically and socially. An essential part of ReImagina’s vision is to promote greater community participation and transparency in the recovery processes so that the people of Puerto Rico can play an active role in forging their future.
After a participatory process involving community leaders, academics and professionals from around the island, ReImagina proposed 97 actions that address key issues for the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico in six sectors (housing; energy; physical infrastructure; natural infrastructure; economic development; and health, education and social services) to address unmet needs and current challenges, and mitigate the impact of natural disasters. The government incorporated many of these recommendations in its recovery plans, but most have not yet been implemented almost two years later.
ReImagina’s recommendations are even more relevant after the recent earthquakes. For example, an island-wide housing emergency management protocol that includes a voucher program for temporary housing and rent control is necessary in order to relocate families at a time when thousands of people are sleeping on streets, shelters and cars without a temporary housing protocol. Many of the homes that suffered significant damage during the earthquakes were built on columns or stilts. ReImagina recommended and emphasized the need to develop loans, grants, or subsidy programs to incentivize and support improvements to the physical resilience of existing housing, supported by manuals that provide practical guidance to improve home safety. For example, the UPRM Strong Movement Program developed a guide for the structural rehabilitation of these homes with the idea of strengthening them. It’s time to start using our local resources to ensure that all Puerto Rican families have a safe place to live.
The Agripina Seda School in Guánica collapsed due to the impact of the earthquakes. Like many other schools in Puerto Rico, the structure was vulnerable because the classroom halls were separated by short columns, which significantly restrict the lateral displacement of buildings in case of tremors. At this stage of recovery, increasing the resilience of educational infrastructure to protect students from natural disasters needs to be a priority. We urgently need to carry out a vulnerability assessment of the island’s schools and prioritize infrastructure investments guided by risk prevention awareness.
A robust energy system is critical to mitigate the impacts of a natural disaster, especially for vulnerable populations. One of our recommendations for boosting energy resilience is to establish a reliable and diversified backup energy system for vulnerable individuals and critical facilities, such as hospitals, schools, shelters and emergency service facilities. Although we have made progress in this area due to private and nonprofit investments, we still have a lot to do. Several nonprofits have provided auxiliary power to schools and health clinics (330 centers) by installing solar panels and storage batteries. For example, the Hospital La Concepción, in San Germán, was able to operate without interruption after the blackout because their electrical system operates independently from PREPA. It is a combined heat and power generation system (known as CHP), that operates with propane gas and has minimal emissions. ReImagina also recommended and has continued to emphasize the importance of promoting and enforcing public policies and comprehensive regulations to integrate microgrids, mini-grids, and renewable energy into the energy system to achieve resilience during natural disasters. However, the proposed PREPA Restructuring Support Agreement, or RSA, goes against the new energy public policy (Law 17 -2019) by discouraging the use of renewable and distributed energy, which would allow us to be more resilient in this regard.
I am excited to see how one of ReImagina’s priority recommendations, developing resilient community centers to improve the provision of services during emergencies and disasters, is being implemented around Puerto Rico with the support of several nonprofits. Coordination and collaboration have proven to be paramount in the immediate recovery processes and will be key in the long-term process of rebuilding the island. Just as we have managed to develop resilient community centers, we have to find a way to implement these and other recommendations to achieve a strong, equitable and prosperous Puerto Rico and help rebuild the island on a more solid, fair and resilient foundation.
This column was originally published in El Nuevo Día on February 9, 2020.