Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria – a brief case study
In order to deepen the reader’s understanding of possible applications of the Regenerative Culture framework, I introduce a brief exploration of the community response in Puerto Rico to hurricane Maria, as seen through the lens of the three nodes of the Regenerative Triad: Restoration, Connection and Healing. As a child of the Puerto Rican diaspora these events have a particular resonance for me.
On September 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria (category 5) ripped through the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico with wind speeds of up to 175-mph. It triggered one of the longest power blackouts in history.
The official death toll reached 2,975 in the five months after the hurricane, making it the deadliest natural disaster for the U.S. in 100 years. (GWU Milken Institute, 2018)
Background to the disaster
Puerto Rico is an archipelago located in the Caribbean basin, 1000 miles southeast of Florida.
It is an organized but unincorporated territory of the United States of America since 1898. Despite Puerto Ricans being US citizens from birth since 1917 – and Puerto Rican men therefore subject to conscription in the US Army – the islanders do not have full representation in Congress and cannot vote for president.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, gives the US control over the maritime waters and ports of PR and has been reported to have had a ruinous effect on the island’s economy, imposing a higher cost of living than in mainland USA and increasing unemployment. (John Dunham & Associates, 2019)
At the time Maria struck, Puerto Rico owed more than $100 billion in bonds and unpaid pension debts, representing nearly 70% of the territory’s gross domestic product. (Rodríguez-Díaz, 2018) This long standing debt burden has led to chronic underinvestment in all sectors from energy and transport to education, health and social care, increasing the island’s vulnerability. Only two weeks prior to Maria, category 5 Hurricane Irma had skirted Puerto Rico leaving more than 1 million people without power and 56.000 people without access to clean water. (NBC news sept 1, 2017)
Numerous reports indicate that the US government failed in its duty of care to its Puerto Rican citizens. Eight days after the disaster communities still lacked safe drinking water, basic food supplies, transportation, and electricity. (Lichtveld, 2018)
In addition to lower levels of federal personnel deployed to the island (40,000 for Irma in Florida in first 180 days post-hurricane vs 19.000 in Puerto Rico) disaster appropriation funding to Puerto Rico took twice as long to reach the same levels that Texas and Florida received in two months. (Willison, Singer, et al, 2019)
Despite the US Department of Homeland Security having accumulated an estimated half a billion dollars in post-hurricane expenditures in PR within five months of the disaster, less than a fifth of these funds ended up in the hands of Puerto Rican contractors. (Rodriguez-Díaz, Lewellen-Williams , 2020) Two years after the disaster only a fraction of the allocated $42.3 billion aid package had been disbursed. (Acevedo, 2019)
When the residents of Puerto Rico realized that the state and federal government’s response was woefully inadequate, they decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.
Members of the Puerto Rican diaspora across Oregon, Vermont, California, Illinois, New York, Arkansas, Florida, Colorado, Texas, and many other states donated hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to family and communities on the island. (Martinez) (Rodríguez-Díaz, 2018)
After two weeks waiting for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Javier Jiminez, mayor of San Sebastian gathered a group of retired electricians and began restoring electricity to the townsfolk. Two months later the Pepino Power Authority had already restored 92% of the service.
Other islanders began to help their vulnerable neighbours access shelter, food and clean drinking water. Community kitchens sprang up in disused community centres and school buildings, with volunteers donating food, kitchen equipment and their time and skills to help each other survive. These community kitchens grew into Mutual Aid hubs, known as CAMs (Centro de Apoyo Mutuo) and formed a network across the island, providing not only for the community’s physical wellbeing, but also providing care and solace for a traumatized population. (The Response Podcast, 2018)
In addition to providing for immediate survival needs, the CAMs began organizing health fairs offering talks on water purification, filter distribution, and civil rights, and disaster preparation fairs teaching skills like rainwater collection and map reading. They offered art and crafts workshops to promote local culture and relaxing activities where people could pass the time together and learn new skills. To help relieve the stress and trauma brought on by the disaster they organised workshops on healing, acupuncture, massage and natural medicine.
The Regenerative Triad in action
As the background to this disaster reveals, the Regenerative Capacity of many Puerto Rican communities was already severely impaired at the time the hurricane struck. Debt and austerity measures, alongside the island’s ambiguous legal status – which some may describe as the equivalent to a colony (Rodriguez-Díaz, Lewellen-Williams, 2020) – created the adverse conditions which intensified the severity of the hurricane’s impact.
Despite these terrible conditions communities on the ground and abroad pulled together to protect and care for their fellow citizens. These acts of community solidarity (CONNECTION) extended beyond mere physical survival to address the emotional (HEALING) and social justice (RESTORATION) aspects of the crisis.
By addressing islanders immediate needs of Subsistence and Protection organisers facilitated the process of Connection. Identity, Creation and Idleness were met through arts activities, aiding the other Healing modalities on offer. Identity and Participation needs are likely to have been addressed in talks on civil rights, with workshops in disaster preparation providing for people’s need for Understanding, Freedom and Protection. The general care and friendship offered by the Mutual Aid Centres would have provided for the needs of Affection, Protection and Identity.
This very effective organisation of mutual support in the face of adversity has inspired people all over Puerto Rico and become a movement which many hope will “transform Puerto Rico, one person at a time”. High school teacher Astrid Cruz Negrón of the The Mutual Aid Center of Utuado: “The natural response of each one of us was to ask “what can I do?”(..) As an activist one hopes for a better world and then looks for ways to not only solve the emergency, but every step we take is aimed at building that world we have always been working towards.” (The Response Podcast, 2018)
Mainland Puerto Ricans have reported feeling frustrated and saddened when witnessing from afar the impact of the storm and the lack of government support for Puerto Ricans on the island. On the other hand they also experienced ‘post-traumatic vicarious growth’, saying the storm strengthened their cultural pride. “Mainland Puerto Ricans felt strengthened by the support they provided and received and by the belief that Puerto Ricans are resilient and strong-minded.” (Aviles, 2018)
This disaster and the response of Puerto Ricans, both on the island and in mainland USA, has increased awareness of the political issues behind the crisis, mobilising a new wave of activism in people of all ages. Instead of allowing disaster capitalists to move in and ‘fix’ the immediate crisis with a hefty price tag, Puerto Ricans have been practicing ‘disaster collectivism’, and reclaiming the Regenerative Space they are entitled to. “Some may call what happened in Puerto Rico after the impact of Hurricane Maria resilience; I call it resistance. We have not been knocked down. In any case, the impact of Hurricane Maria may be providing the evidence needed to recognize colonialism as the ultimate social determinant of health in Puerto Rico.” (Rodríguez-Díaz, 2020)
“Social movements and mutual aid networks are (…) fundamental for maintaining society during the crisis and the inevitable gaps in state and private sector provisioning. Yet movements also offer the ideas, imaginaries and political support needed for states to drive forward transformative ecological change. Environmentalists, feminists, housing activists, food banks and other community projects and movements are an important catalyst and make the significant changes needed for transforming the economy democratically feasible.” (F. A. Boons et al. 2020:21).
The cultures of dominance and separation that drive our current economy create a cycle of scarcity that is hollowing out our change making capacity as individuals and communities. Recognising this and finding ways to break the cycle and reclaim Regenerative Space to grow Regenerative Cultures can help communities become more resilient and crisis ready, as well as heal our hearts and free our sociological imaginations to vision a better future.
The Regenerative Triad serves as a guide, a way of coordinating existing practices so that they work together to enhance each other and generate a virtuous cycle, aiding the growth of cultural practices that enable humans to meet fundamental needs in ways that are socially and ecologically regenerative.
The processes described in the Regenerative Triad must be strongly influenced and ideally directed by communities themselves in order to cater for and express the particulars of place, history and culture. Reclaiming regenerative space for communities enables their unique cultural expressions and varieties of satisfiers to be recovered, rediscovered and rebuilt, strengthening organic articulations of people with their environment, so central to Human Scale Development Practice.
We have so much to learn from people working at the ‘grassroots’, from other cultures, other ways of being on the planet. It is time to foreground a multitude of ‘other ways’, rather than clinging to destructive and discredited economic thinking and practice.
The work of Regenerative Culture building is the work of liberation. Liberation of our places, our time, our bodies, our minds, our hearts, the earth in service of the health and wellbeing of current and future generations of beings. As we face further crises it is imperative that the process of restoring Regenerative Space/Capacity is understood as a priority by communities and policy makers alike.
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