Moving Forward from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico
By Jacqueline Canales and Leah Sheppard
Urban Land Institute
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria—the deadliest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 100 years—slammed into the island’s coast with winds that reached 155 miles per hour (250 kmph). This occurred just a few short weeks after Hurricane Irma had already hit the island with devastating effects.
Hurricane Maria left all 3.2 million residents on the island without electricity and most without water and communications. These storms rounded out a particularly hyperactive and catastrophic 2017 hurricane season, affecting Florida and Texas in addition to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and registering as one of the costliest tropical hurricane seasons on record.
To contribute to the commonwealth’s recovery effort, The Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Advisory Services program engaged with ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean and the Puerto Rico Builders Association to select a municipality to receive technical assistance focusing on enhancing resilience and strengthening the economy, as well as to act as a model for the implementation of best practices.
The panel was a philanthropic effort, funded by the Kresge Foundation and ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean, and supported by Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon Architecture and Interior Design. College of Environmental Design Associate Professor of Architecture and MRED+D Faculty Director Christopher Calott was one of a handful of ULI Advisory Services panelists who participated in the trip. The partnership among Alvarez-Diaz’s firm, the Puerto Rico Builders Association, and ULI selected Toa Baja, a municipality of more than 80,000 residents located just west of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan, to be the focus of the panel.
Calott and the ULI Advisory Services panel traveled to Toa Baja on Puerto Rico’s northern coast to assess damages and come up with creative solutions for rebuilding the area. In December 2018, Toa Baja’s leadership hosted the Advisory Services panel to deliver recommendations to enhance the community’s economic and climate resilience. “For decades, many of the key planning issues in our community were either ignored or not dealt with,” says Mayor Bernardo “Betito” Márquez, who for years was a local private sector and community leader. “It was clear that doing things in a traditional way would be ineffective. I felt that the combination of local community leadership working together with experts from ULI from around the globe would be the best way to disrupt the process and rethink all these issues.”
The international group of panelists was charged with providing recommendations on ways to improve preparedness for extreme weather events and to provide a roadmap to long-term resilience, focusing on economic development, housing, and land use strategies. The panel’s expertise included the following: real estate development and design, community mediation, environmental engineering, landscape design, and land recycling.
Following the week of briefings, site tours, and community stakeholder interviews, the panel delivered strategic recommendations to enhance the social, physical, and economic resilience of Toa Baja.
The panel laid out strategies to strengthen economic development initiatives, including immediately actionable methods to potentially secure Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They recommended that Toa Baja work to position itself to receive funds by prioritizing ready-to-go projects and establishing strategic partnerships among the community and the local and federal governments. Through these partnerships, the municipality will be able to build credibility to position itself to receive earmarked funds available to address redevelopment and disaster recovery. By demonstrating a readiness to deliver projects through thoughtful and methodological approaches, Toa Baja can kick-start an effective strategy for redevelopment.
The panel also proposed targeting development zones that are at higher elevations and suggested incentives to encourage the delivery of mixed-use projects in those areas. The municipality of Toa Baja should prepare short-, medium-, and long-term plans that will create opportunities to support catalytic development projects located in those zones. Supporting those developments can help Toa Baja respond to its critical housing demand while positioning the municipality for sustainable economic growth.
Panelists including Calott also recommended strengthening current and new real estate development and infrastructure by prioritizing code compliance, and investing in and strengthening the electricity infrastructure. The panel identified funds available to strengthen Toa Baja’s code enforcement, which would include the training of new inspectors, partnerships with community organizations, promotion of cross-agency coordination, and implementation of a penalty for noncompliance. Having reliable structures and systems would support further development and potentially attract new economic opportunities to the area.