Communities as First Responders: Piñones, Puerto Rico After Disaster

Sponsoring organization:  La Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI)

Team members: Jillian Early (Biochemistry and Psychological Science’23), Maya Ellis (Electrical and Computer Engineering’23), Tyler Larson (Electrical and Computer Engineering’23), & Rachel Swanson (Chemistry and Chemical Engineering’23)

Advisors: Professor Robert Hersh & Professor Leslie Dodson

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Abstract: The community of Piñones, Puerto Rico habitually encounters seasonal marejadas (tidal waves) and severe hurricanes. Working with La Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI), this project  focused on exploring past community experiences about natural disasters to initiate organized preparedness and response for the future. We investigated  the concept of the community as first responders, analyzing models for Place Attachment, Zero-Order Responders, and adapting the Model for Disaster Resiliency of Place. We gathered stories from community members about natural disasters and created two videos about disaster response across generations, a Spanish-language podcast and large-scale outreach material for the community.

Executive Summary:

La Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI)
La Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI) is a community-based nonprofit organization
comprised of people from in and around the Piñones area. COPI celebrates the culture and history of Piñones, while also supporting the community to be better prepared for future natural disasters. COPI is invested in understanding how the Piñones community tackles emergency preparedness and response, as this is vital knowledge for the survival of the community in the event of a disaster. COPI was interested in better understanding the community’s experience of natural disasters and preparedness and recovery strategies. This IQP project focused on collecting personal stories and investigating how the experiences of local residents could be analyzed through various models of community resiliency in the context of disasters.

Goal and Objectives
The goal of this project was to explore experiences of the people of Piñones in light of the concept of the community as first responders. Our team created four objectives to meet this goal. 1) Explore the perspectives of various stakeholders in terms of past and present emergency preparation and response. 2) Compile community experiences of past natural disasters and investigate dynamics of community networks and coping responses. 3) Adapt existing model of community after disasters to organize and analyze the concept of “community as first responders.” 4) Consider and reflect on community member perspectives for future emergency preparedness to stimulate deeper conversations.




Collecting community experiences through interviews
The intricacies, characteristics and dynamics of a community, and the unpredictability of natural disasters, make quantifying a community’s resilience less helpful than gauging a community’s resilience from members’ perspectives of their community and how it operates (Sherrieb et al., 2010). We conducted 17 key informant interviews, including semi-structured and ad hoc interviews, with community leaders, residents, and external stakeholders to gather perspectives on disaster response, preparation, and the lived experience of natural disasters by people in and around Piñones. We sought to understand the role of individuals and networks of community response in the aftermath of Hurricane María, including how supply networks functioned, the role of spiritual support during emergencies, and perceptions of risk. We collected an array of stories and experiences across age, gender, and location.

Adapting a model of community resilience
We adapted the Disaster Resilience of Place (DROP) model by Susan Cutter et al. (2008) to fit
the experiences of the community. To highlight the ways in which the Piñones community facilitated
its own relief efforts, we coded and analyzed our interviews using this model. We organized our
findings to describe what occurred before, during, and after an event such as Hurricane María.

We also related interview content to the Swapan and Sadeque’s (2021) theories of place
attachment and different classifications of responders, such as Phung et al.’s (2017) Community First Responders, Briones, Vachon, and Glantz’s (2019) distinctions between Immediate Responders, Zero-Order Responders (ZORs), and Professional First Responders after disaster.

In addition, we compared content to the CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication
(CERC) manual and model for community response after disaster (CDC, 2015). We used these models to understand the different dimensions of the Piñones community as first responders. Our project
sought to understand the unique relationship that a community has with its coping responses and
how a community’s resources, networks, and culture influences this concept of community as first

Storytelling through videos, a podcast, and outreach material
We created several storyworld elements to appeal to various audiences, such as community
members, visitors to COPI, and an academic audience. We produced a “Community as First
Responders” video showcasing community experiences of Hurricane María. This video highlights how,
despite lack of government support, and a lack of power and resources, people in Piñones were able
to overcome the challenges of Hurricane Maria.

The “Memoirs of María” video and “La Última Ficha” / “The Last Piece” podcast featured the three coresearchers who represent millennial voices in the community. The “Memoirs of María” video is an English-language exploration that intertwines coresearchers’ memories of Hurricane María and the response of the communities. The co-researchers created one episode of “La Última Ficha” podcast, a Spanish-language podcast on coping mechanisms in the aftermath of Hurricane María.

We also designed the “Endurance, Resilience, Perseverance” banner to be displayed at COPI. The largescale (2’x6’) public banner
spotlights compelling quotes and portraits from interviews with community members as well as archival photos. The “Endurance, Resilience, Perseverance” banner can be used to highlight the community’s strengths, capabilities, social networks, and vulnerabilities. It was designed to support COPI’s efforts to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters.