Is Puerto Rico a Global Model for Disaster Recovery?

In the Wake of Three Hurricanes—And Centuries of Exploitation—Islanders Turned to One Another for Relief

With the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments falling short on disaster recovery efforts, local communities have stepped up to support each other—including providing safe and clean water, researcher Omar Pérez Figueroa writes. Above, rebuilding a home in Morovis, Puerto Rico in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico on September 18, 2022, the U.S. colony had still not fully recovered from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, in 2017. Collapsed bridges had not been rebuilt, houses still lacked roofs, and most recovery funds had not been distributed.

Fiona’s rains only added to the woes, causing house collapses on the interior part of the island, devastating mudslides, and a widespread power outage that lasted for weeks. There was no drinking water: The Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority failed to acquire power generators before the storm hit, and drinking water or sewage systems run mainly on electricity. Simple tasks such as getting gas for the generator (for those who had one) or obtaining drinking water could take a whole day—and become life-and-death situations for people with chronic illnesses who needed ventilators or refrigerated insulin.

The three hurricanes severely impacted the island’s wellbeing. But their effects aren’t simply the result of intense storms. These “natural disasters” are political, stemming from a long colonial history culminating in years of austerity imposed by the U.S. With federal and local government support at a standstill, people in the colony are pulling together to make things better. Mutual aid groups and rural water systems have driven recovery pathways across the island, creating a new model for effective disaster recovery.

Puerto Rico’s history is one of exploitation. The island became a Spanish possession in the 1500s, with a colonial governance built on the genocide of Indigenous people, the enslavement of Africans, and the mistreatment of land and animals to develop the coffee, tobacco, and sugar industries.

After the U.S. took control of the island in 1898, tax incentives for U.S. corporations have come and gone, driving increases in poverty, unemployment and emigration. Starting in the 1950s, Operation Bootstrap allowed companies to establish themselves on the island without paying Puerto Rican taxes; then, in 2006, the federal government swung in the other direction, repealing a corporate tax exemption on income originating from U.S. territories. Companies left the island, and the economy plummeted. Currently, 45% of Puerto Rico’s population lives below the poverty line, and its debt is estimated to be more than $70 billion—a debt that has never been audited and was pushed by Wall Street interests.

The U.S. and Puerto Rico should learn from these community strategies how to better respond in times of need. They should support community aqueducts and mutual aid groups, heeding their needs and concerns, and removing bureaucratic hurdles to accessing funds.

The U.S. government’s response—decreasing Puerto Rico’s debt through austerity measures—has made the island ever more vulnerable in the face of disaster. Under President Obama, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico was created to develop a deal for debt repayment between Puerto Rico and its creditors. However, the Board knew that paying back the debt would be disastrous for the island. Drastic cuts to the island’s education and health systems, including emergency medical technicians, meant that when Hurricane María hit the island, local agencies had minimal capacity to respond. Another measure, a new public-private partnership for the electric grid, has raised energy costs for consumers and caused regular power outages that create daily disruptions in education, water delivery, and health services. In disaster situations, these become catastrophic.

The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments’ disaster recovery efforts have fallen short for Puerto Ricans. Instead, it is community strategies that have enabled life on the island to continue. Mutual aid efforts—defined as collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually growing from awareness that top-down systems aren’t working—have picked up the slack, establishing relief actions for the island such as providing water, food, shelter, and medicine in remote, mountainous regions.

One of the most important of these solidarity efforts are community aqueducts, which provide drinking water infrastructure to areas that the government’s water utility does not serve. The aqueducts usually consist of a water pump or gravity-driven channel that moves water from wells or small rivers to a central water reservoir. The water is then treated by a chlorine disinfection process, and distributed through pipes to houses, schools, churches, and public pick-up stations.

There are 241 of these aqueducts in Puerto Rico, and they are managed largely by the community residents who they serve. Most systems are operated by neighbors that take care of everything from initial installation to day-to-day oversight. (Aqueducts with greater financial resources tend to hire external operators.) Some members oversee physical components, including daily operations and pipe and plume repairs; others take charge of organizational duties, like organizing and running their assemblies and accounting. The aqueduct organizations can take many forms. Many have one person in charge, others have an informal board of trustees, and a few have 501(c)(3) status and a well-defined structure with positions such as president and chief operator.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, community aqueducts were often the only means communities had to access potable water. Having clean water allowed Puerto Ricans to recover some sort of normality, allowing them to clean, do laundry, and flush toilets. In addition, having drinking water saved residents hours that would otherwise be invested in buying or collecting it from public pickup stations.

The network created by the aqueducts also served a more expansive mutual aid role, becoming a conduit for collecting essential goods from foundations and NGOs and redistributing them to residents in need. Members drew on the aqueducts’ networks to facilitate resource-sharing. For example, a member of one community aqueduct in Añasco shared with me that because one person in the community had an excavator available to loan to the post-María cleanup effort, aqueduct managers were able to quickly remove debris and get their system back up and running.

While community aqueducts have had success, they are not immune to the political and economic factors that constrain life in Puerto Rico. They deal with high costs for water tests and privatized energy, and marginalization from local agencies. But they are paving the way for new directions in the recovery and collective organizing. They underscore how collaboration can put even limited resources in motion to tackle emergency needs, in ways that are often more effective than government-sponsored relief efforts.

Mutual aid’s success doesn’t mean that governments should walk away. On the contrary, the U.S. and Puerto Rico should learn from these community strategies how to better respond in times of need. They should support community aqueducts and mutual aid groups, heeding their needs and concerns, and removing bureaucratic hurdles to accessing funds. There is progress: Legislation introduced on the island this year includes community aqueducts on an advisory committee developing drinking water strategies for the island.

As more and more extreme weather events take place across the world, building and maintaining solidarity networks that recognize our mutual interdependence are crucial to a resilient future. Puerto Rico’s mutual aid strategies offer an example to follow as we rethink disaster preparedness.

Omar Pérez Figueroa is an interdisciplinary researcher who supports communities facing environmental inequalities, with a focus on drinking water. He has a PhD in urban and environmental planning and public policy from the University of California, Irvine.


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