During these dire and uncertain times, the memories from five years ago, when Hurricane Maria passed through our archipelago and turned us upside down, come flooding back. This period, which at times has felt like an eternity and at others as if the clock has stood still, has been marked by misfortune given all we have had to endure: the onslaught of a government bankruptcy, several earthquakes, a global pandemic, countless crises in various areas of state management and another disastrous hurricane that is barely on its way out. Likewise, during this half decade we have tried to rebuild the country through a series of post-disaster reconstruction endeavors that, from the most optimistic vantage point, seek to pull us out of the catastrophic ordinariness in which we have been immersed for many years. For this gargantuan task, we have been promised billions of dollars that have been invested little by little, almost in dribs and drabs, in a series of projects that, unfortunately, have not been enough to protect us from new climatic threats, much less to get us out of the socioeconomic and emotional quagmire we still find ourselves in.
Now that we will need to come up with new damage estimates, make plans and execute new strategies, it is worth remembering that launching a major reconstruction is not an easy task. Primarily, because it is a highly bureaucratic and regulated process that, in the best of cases, takes years to decipher and execute. In our case, the situation is even more complicated because we have to take on this challenge with a battered economy, and while the fiscal control board continues to shrink the state’s footprint—including municipal structures, which have proven to be our most important line of defense when the harsh winds rage and the waters rise. Nevertheless, the fact that just days before the fifth anniversary, many of the terrible scenes we experienced on that ill-fated September 20, 2017, happened again, reveals that there has been no real sense of urgency, that very little has been accomplished, and that the state is conditioning us to be not only resilient, but complacent.
Over the next few weeks, we will learn more about how much damage was caused by Fiona’s rains and winds and we will have a better idea of how long it will take us to get out of this emergency period. At the same time, top government officials will be making their media rounds, reciting a familiar script that includes a bunch of figures on aid promised, services reestablished, projects underway, agreements signed and families served, among other progress indicators. All this to show us how their efforts to respond to the new catastrophe and get the post-Maria reconstruction back on track are going smoothly. And, certainly, we will make some progress. But no matter how much they try to hypnotize us with their statistics and projections, they will not be able to disguise the sad reality of thousands of families and communities that have been trying to move forward for five years, amid uncertainty and precariousness, and now have to start all over again. There will be those who want to believe the hype, but there are many who have their ears to the ground, and it is very difficult for them to ignore the claims of those who have been desperately waiting for much needed assistance.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face, given the mountain of damages that continues to accumulate, is the possibility that we may finally get the reconstruction on track but that it will not lead to a just recovery. As scholars and experts have explained, reconstruction and recovery are two different processes that, nevertheless, should be carried out in parallel. Reconstruction aims to repair what had been built – buildings, residences, roads and other structures. Recovery, on the other hand, requires the rebuilding of community networks, civic infrastructures and repairing the relationship between the state and society, which are inevitably disrupted after a cataclysmic event. Reconstruction is forged primarily with sweat, cement, rebar and blocks, while recovery requires other kinds of political commitments and social investments, and usually begins to materialize once residents perceive that they are living a more fulfilled life, and the government recognizes their rights and is held accountable. At the end of the long road ahead, we need to achieve both.
It would be very tragic if all our post-disaster energies and efforts are focused on spending federal funds, cutting ribbons and revitalizing the construction industry. While some would profit from this, the opportunity to transform the country, and perhaps more importantly, to strengthen our communities and rehabilitate the legitimacy of our public institutions, would be definitely lost.
 See, for example, Diane E. Davis, “Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital,” in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, eds. Lawrence J. Vale, and Thomas J. Campanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 255-280
The Spanish version of this column was originally published in El Nuevo Día on September 21, 2022.