Advancing Community Climate Adaptation: Case Study On Resilience Centers in Puerto Rico

Project Sponsors:

Mariana Reyes, Taller Comunidad La Goyco

Javier Valedon, ID Shaliah

Team Members: William Fallon, Noah Herzig, Andrew Lufkin, Brendan O’Mullan

Project Advisors: Professors Leslie Dodson and Scott Jiusto

Project Files:

Abstract: The goal of this project was to assist the development of community climate adaptation in Puerto Rico. To realize this goal, we conducted two case studies on separate resilience centers at varying levels of development to increase our understanding of the daily operations and problems that these centers face. The project resulted in the creation of an Emergency Management Toolkit which contains an emergency information mapping system as well as a formal networking and outreach campaign.

Executive Summary

Puerto Rico is a small territory of the United States located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea, east of the Dominican Republic and West of the Virgin Islands. It encompasses beautiful cities, sandy beaches and about 3.2 million people (World Bank, 2021). In 2017, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit the island destroying the power grid and causing the longest blackout in United States history taking 328 days to restore power to all customers (Zahn, 2022). It also caused major flooding and damage to large infrastructure on the island. This was certainly not the first hurricane to hit Puerto Rico and will not be the last.

Current and future climate risks for small islands such as Puerto Rico include sea level rise, tropical and extratropical cyclones, and increasing air and sea temperatures (Nurse, et al., 2014). Climate change plays a large role in hurricane destruction and is forecast to further increase wind and rain damage. Changing climate patterns are a large threat to Puerto Rico’s population and infrastructure. Ineffective response to Hurricane Maria has alerted government officials and independent organizations that Puerto Rico, the federal government, and local communities must do much more to prepare for and adapt to future climate hazards (de Arzola, 2018). A lack of sophisticated preparation left many communities without resources and information when they needed it most. Hurricane Maria left only one radio tower standing on the island, and it was only operational if citizens could get through uprooted trees and destroyed roadways. This left the island with poor communication and displayed a lack of response systems to inform the public during times of crisis. Hospitals were unable to adequately help patients due to inadequate resources and an inability to communicate with staff members internally and externally (de Arzola, 2018). With no power grid and limited access to water and resources, civilians were left to fight for their lives.

Figure 1: Destruction Hurricane Maria caused in 2017 (Kudacki, 2017)

Many in Puerto Rico believe the governmental bodies of the United States and Puerto Rico failed to provide effective aid and recovery (Clement et al., 2018). With the failures of top-down approaches, many communities recognize the importance of being more self-reliant in the face of emergencies. Implementing a bottom-up approach can “effectively engage people in everyday transformational changes focused on meeting material needs” (Simon et al., 2020, p. 100). This approach starts by working with community centers and other community stakeholders, it is referred to as community climate adaptation (Dahlman, 2023). It is a process that can “improve the collective resilience and knowledge of people who may not have traditionally responded to, or been excluded from, local government engagement processes, particularly around climate change” (Simon et al., 2020, p. 101). Many communities are adopting this concept and using it to build community resilience. One key approach is in the construction of resilience centers that help bring people together and supply them with much needed resources. These centers can help provide food, clothing, education, and electricity especially in the event of an emergency. Resiliency centers can also help organize the community and bring people together to help each other outside of emergency situations. Two examples of these centers are the Cubuy-Lomas Community Services & Development Center and Taller Comunidad La Goyco center.

Programs like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Adaptation Program (CAP) seek to advance the cause of community climate adaptation by creating “sustained, collaborative relationships that help communities build lasting and equitable climate resilience” (Climate Program Office, n.d.). One of these initiatives is the Caribbean Climate Adaptation Network (CCAN). Launched in 2023, the CCAN looks to “form a regional knowledge-action network of researchers and stakeholders that can evaluate needs, provide technical-scientific expertise, facilitate communication, and build cross-regional connections and capacity” (NOAA RISA Narrative, 2022, p. 1) One aspect of their methodology is to adopt an approach that focuses on Human-Centered design and participatory planning to “build a just and equitable climate resilience capacity in local society by improving planning for future climate, social, and economic scenarios” (NOAA RISA Narrative, 2022, p. 1). However, to start this process CCAN needs to better understand how “populations and communities that are most vulnerable to multiple environmental stressors can be better served and prepared for climate adaptation” (NOAA RISA Narrative, 2022, p. 8). A potential way to form this understanding would be to study resilience centers, to understand what resources each center has and needs, and what it takes to build and maintain an operational center.

Between the years of 2007 and 2018, Puerto Rico has seen a record number of schools closed on the island. Due to an economic recession and the effects of hurricanes Maria and Irma, 44%, or 673 of the island’s schools were closed and abandoned (Abizeid, 2020). These events left an unprecedented number of buildings across the island empty and without purpose. Some communities have decided to repurpose these school buildings as resilience centers. Resilience Centers are locations that specialize in distribution of goods to the community in times of crisis and disaster (Afshar, Haghani, 2012). While they specialize as a rally point during disasters, many of these centers also work to support the communities year-round.

Our mission was to assist the development of community climate adaptation in the Caribbean by furthering the development of resiliency centers. The execution of a case study on the Cubuy-Lomas and La Goyco resiliency centers help us understand the vital role these centers play in emergency situations and community preservation. Our findings will be collected by CCAN so they can better assist community climate adaptation efforts.

Our newfound knowledge of the operations and troubles involved with running a resilience center allows us to further community climate adaptation in Puerto Rico. This led us to develop an Emergency Preparation Toolkit and mapping system that can be used to advance local emergency preparation and response. Information will be communicated back to CCAN to help them better understand how to best assist the growth of community climate adaptation across multiple levels of stakeholders.

Figure 2: Our team helping distribute water to local organizations