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Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission Releases “Reimagina Puerto Rico” Strategy

A Blueprint co-created by Leaders from Puerto Rico’s Philanthropic, Business, Government, and NGO Sectors, Includes 97 Concrete Actions and Initiatives to Build a Resilient, More Equitable Island

ReImagina Puerto Rico Seeks To Provide a Unified Set of Recommendations for Building Holistic Resilience and Ensuring Billions in Relief Funds Have the Greatest Possible Impact

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — The Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission (RPRAC) today released “ReImagina Puerto Rico,” an ambitious and pragmatic strategy to rebuild Puerto Rico as a more resilient and equitable island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The blueprint contains 97 concrete actions and recommendations designed to be carried out by a wide variety of actors from the public, private, and NGO sectors.

The commission was created last fall with the most innovative and tested solutions, drawn from island stakeholders from all sectors and international experts, to help rebuild Puerto Rico in a way that makes the island stronger– physically, economically, and socially – and better prepared to confront future challenges.  The result is a unified set of actionable recommendations to guide funding from a wide variety of sources – including billions of dollars in federal relief funds.

RPRAC is led by executive director Malu Blázquez Arsuaga and a group of five co-chairs, all of whom have strong connections to the island, and is supported with funding from The Rockefeller Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Ford Foundation. The three organizations have deep experience in building resilience and helping jurisdictions recover from natural disasters, including hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. The five co-chairs selected 24 commissioners to lead this work, in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, an organization that helps governments around the world build actionable resilience strategies.

Seventy-seven meetings were held island-wide and more than 750 people participated in the process including community leaders, government officials, non-profit associations, business leaders and professional associations. Some of these participants include: Puerto Rico Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) of the Government of Puerto Rico, FEMA, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Center for a New Economy, Espacios Abiertos, the Instituto Nueva Escuela, faculty from the University of Puerto Rico and La Red de Fundaciones, among others.

Since coming together in November 2017, the group has spent the last seven months identifying key risks, engaging with the federal, state, and municipal governments, and laying out recommendations to a make Puerto Rico a better place, for all of its citizens. Support for the commission comes from a pool of funds that are also being used to improve the capacity of philanthropic institutions on the island; develop a more comprehensive damage assessment; and provide immediate recovery assistance.

The document contains 97 recommendations, 17 of which are considered immediate priorities that address critical elements in the recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico.

As an immediate next step, RPRAC will present the document to local and federal government officials, municipalities, and NGOs; as well as coordinate a series of town hall meetings across the Island – open to the public – the first will be held on June 26 at the University of Sacred Heart in Santurce. The Commission will also serve as facilitator to connect leaders, collaborators, and sponsors of these initiatives and will begin meetings with organizations such as PECES and the University of Puerto Rico, School of Law, to lead the implementation of the recommendations.

Also, this initiative aims to influence the preparation, development and implementation of the reconstruction plan being developed by the Government of Puerto Rico for US Congress, as well as the CDBG-DR action plan to be presented to HUD.

Sample projects include:

  • Developing feasible models to establish land tenure and community ownership in Puerto Rico’s housing market. Puerto Rico has an informal housing market that leaves many residents without legal tenure in the form of a land title, a certificate of occupancy, or both – disproportionately exposing the island’s most vulnerable citizens to natural hazard risks and reducing access to basic services. In the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane María, lack of formal legal tenure prevented residents from benefiting from resources such as homeowners’ insurance coverage and post-disaster FEMA funding. Addressing this challenge will improve access to basic services; allow for quicker recovery in the event of a disaster; and reduce inequality by providing opportunity for building wealth.
  • Establishing reliable and diversified backup energy systems for vulnerable individuals and critical facilities, such as hospitals, schools, and emergency shelters and service facilities. Access to backup energy equipment is vital for such critical institutions as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, fire and police stations, water supply systems, wastewater treatment plants, fuel pumping and pressurization stations, cellular communications towers, community centers, and emergency shelters, among others. The electrical systems of these facilities should be hardened and made redundant to protect assets and systems against natural hazards and power system failures. Keeping these institutions operational during a disaster would not only save lives but reduce the cost of recovery.
  • Developing and implementing a disaster resilience strategy for the micro and small businesses of Puerto Rico. With up to 80 percent of the island’s formal employment in the micro and small business sector, it is critical to provide tools to support baseline economic resilience through disaster preparedness.  Two funds are being established – one focused on grants and loans to help businesses repair the damage, and one to help them install solar power and other systems that can function independently from the electrical grid.

“This document is an initial step in the long journey of reimagining Puerto Rico. The Commission firmly trusts that the set of recommendations presented in the ReImagina Puerto Rico project provides an initial and clear route to the long-term recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico. The history of the new Puerto Rico has begun, and we are proud to be part of its rebirth,” said RPRAC executive director Malu Blázquez Arsuaga.

“All of us want to see a Puerto Rico that is more equitable for our American brothers and sisters, more resilient to shocks and disasters, and provides opportunity for all Puerto Ricans in good times and bad,” said Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation. “I’m confident that this strategy will accelerate the public and private sectors—especially in the areas of education, sustainable power, more resilient health care services, and modern infrastructure—to help build back Puerto Rico better than before.”

“We believe it’s critical to chart a path toward equitable recovery and growth that benefits all Puerto Ricans,” said Xavier de Souza Briggs, vice president for Inclusive Economies and Markets at the Ford Foundation. “To get this right will demand engagement by business, government and community leaders committed to the long-term recovery. But we also need to ensure that families and communities whose homes and livelihoods have been up-ended by Maria have a voice at the table as the plan goes into action.”

“The people of Puerto Rico have suffered unimaginable hardships since the storm hit,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations. “It is time to move from recovery to rebirth. We are proud to support the work of the commission, fueled by the wisdom of local voices, to help chart the many ways the island can build on the strength and determination of its people, and map a brighter future.”  

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Bernardo Fiol- Costa, (787) 460-8010
100 Resilient Cities:

Summary: ReImagina Puerto Rico

Executive Summary

The catastrophic events caused by hurricanes Irma and María in September 2017 elevated a common plea to re-imagine Puerto Rico as it moves forward on its path towards recovery and reconstruction. This process should not focus only on replacing outdated infrastructure, but also foster a social and economic transformation across the island to create a more just, equitable, and resilient society. As part of the numerous recovery efforts that emerged, the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission (RPRAC) was created in November 2017 to serve as a unifying force among a diverse group of Puerto Rican voices.

RPRAC has been supported through financial resources by three foundations with deep experience in building resilience and disaster recovery: The Rockefeller Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, and the Ford Foundation. It was supported through technical assistance and leadership from 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, whose staff lead the individual working groups.

RPRAC’s goal is to promote a stronger, more resilient Puerto Rico as it embarks on reimagining development and reconstruction with more public participation and transparency in the recovery processes, enabling Puerto Ricans to take an active role in forging the vision of the island. The RPRAC’s core project, ReImagina Puerto Rico, is aimed at producing an actionable and timely set of recommendations for how to maximize philanthropic, local government, and federal recovery funds. The purpose of the strategy is to help rebuild Puerto Rico in a way that makes the island stronger– physically, economically, and socially – and better prepared to confront future challenges.

RPRAC adopted an accelerated timeframe to produce this report to complement ongoing post-disaster recovery efforts being led by U.S. federal agencies, Puerto Rico’s government, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the island. RPRAC embarked in a broad and participatory outreach approach toward Puerto Rico’s recovery and reconstruction, enabling a conversation among a diverse collection of voices to build consensus while identifying opportunities to embed resilience in the rebuilding efforts. Considering the extent of the federal and philanthropic funding available to support recovery actions in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, contributions from ReImagina Puerto Rico will provide significant insight to responsible government agencies and NGOs toward achieving more resilient recovery actions.

During the process adopted by ReImagina Puerto Rico, important recommendations surfaced and were developed. While there may be many paths to recovery, RPRAC established a set of recommended principles to steer all chosen paths. These guiding recovery principles are:

  • Maximize social well-being in all investments
  • Equity and inclusiveness as a priority
  • Transparency at all levels of policy making
  • Emphasize and foster coordination and collaboration

ReImagina Puerto Rico divided the work into six broad topic areas: (1) Housing; (2) Energy; (3) Physical Infrastructure; (4) Health, Education, & Social Services; (5) Economic Development; and (6) Natural Infrastructure.

Developing actionable recommendations required a clear definition of the scope and reach of the issues these initiatives addresses. The purpose of well-defining the scope was to promote realistic expectations and avoid setting overambitious goals that ignore the current social, economic, and institutional landscape that define Puerto Rico’s context. As such, ReImagina Puerto Rico establishes the following sector goals:

Housing: Develop a portfolio of strategies that reduce risk exposure and that foster community empowerment, addressing the diversity in socioeconomic conditions, housing types, and tenure in Puerto Rico.

Energy: Address Puerto Rico’s energy needs by transforming its electric power infrastructure into an affordable, reliable, and innovative system, while reducing adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

Physical Infrastructure: Develop and maintain infrastructure systems that are accessible, integrated, flexible, and robust enough so they may sustain critical operations for the well-being of Puerto Ricans.

Health, Education, and Social Services: Develop initiatives that ensure the provision of health, educational, and social services to reduce existing and future vulnerabilities and chart a pathway towards improved equity and well-being with more participation of the people in its definition and implementation.

Economic Development: Craft a diversified portfolio of economic activities that augment Puerto Rico’s resiliency by enhancing existing capabilities, improving employment prospects, and reducing inequalities.

Natural Infrastructure: Improve human health and well-being, foster economic development, and reduce exposure to hazards, through the sustainable use of Puerto Rico’s natural resources.

To help jumpstart the required planning efforts, ReImagina Puerto Rico has put forward specific and actionable recommendations that comprehensively address unmet needs, ongoing challenges, and mitigate the impact of future disasters.

As part of the project’s outreach process, RPRAC also convened community members and leaders, grassroots organizations, business leaders, government officials, and representatives from professional organizations, among other groups, providing a common platform to discuss concerns and aspirations regarding a stronger Puerto Rico. The result was the creation of 18 Housing sector actions; 12 for the Energy sector; 30 for Physical Infrastructure; 9 for Health, Education & Social Services; 12 for Economic Development; and 16 for the Natural Infrastructure sector. ReImagina Puerto Rico is an initial step toward a broader journey seeking the re-imagining of Puerto Rico, as it reinvents itself in the wake of major disasters. The Commission steadfastly promotes that the set of recommendations put forth in the ReImagina Puerto Rico project provides a clear initial path toward the long-term recovery and reconstruction of Puerto Rico. The story of the new Puerto Rico is yet to be written.

Summary of 17 Priority Projects

Puerto Rico Priority Recommendations

  1. Develop feasible models to establish land tenure and/or community ownership in informal communities located in safe locations, then pilot these methods in three communities in the near term.
  2. Establish reliable and diversified back-up energy systems for critical facilities, such as hospitals, schools, and emergency shelters and services facilities.  This initiative will include an emphasis on renewable and stand-alone energy options. Demonstration projects will be promoted for implementation for each type of critical facility and vulnerable population groups.
  3. Develop resilient community centers that will provide shelter, food, electricity and other critical services during emergencies and their immediate aftermath, and promote community cohesion in good times.
  4. Invest in improvements to the physical infrastructure of educational and healthcare facilities to enhance the provision of services on a regular basis, and in the face of multiple hazards. This initiative will pilot retrofit projects of schools and hospitals whose closure would pose the greatest risk.  In the longer-term, the improvements would be scaled across the full portfolio of social infrastructure.
  5. Prioritize Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding for training, re-training, and skills credentialing in priority industry clusters. Funds will be allocated to and support the career paths of workers who have relevant employment experience and life skills but lack formal education or industry certification.
  6. Update the island’s digital land cadaster to include: use and occupancy of structures, land tenure data, housing characteristics in informal housing, and information on insurance coverage.  This data collection and mapping initiative should be community-driven and piloted in selected communities with the intention of scaling the approach.  Data would be digitized, integrated, shared and regularly updated in a coordinated, transparent, and accessible way to inform decision making related to future development.
  7. Commission a study for deploying more resilient telecommunication infrastructure using underground conduit systems and/or aerial using utility poles.  Collaborate with the Federal Communications Commission and local telecom companies to facilitate the usage of next generation technology, such as 5G mobile phone service.
  8. Enforce open space determinations with programs/guidelines for the dedication of lands as parks, green infrastructure projects, land conservation and other appropriate uses. These programs would guide the demolition of existing structures in high hazard areas and the maintenance of land for permanent public use and multi-benefits.
  9. Prepare a new Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), with public, community and private sector participation, to be used as the foundation for the energy sector transformation. This initiative would include updated analysis and forecast of the demand base, aggressive renewable generation targets, and a risk-based analysis of the sector to strengthen utility oversight and operator decision making.  The IRP should lay the basis for incorporating distributed energy resources and microgrids into the system.
  10. Develop a master integrated Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) for critical infrastructures and providers. This initiative will address the need to understand the role of providers, recognize gaps in the delivery of services, examine post-hurricane conditions, and analyze the interdependency of critical infrastructure.
  11. Improve data collection, management and dissemination to insure information transparency, reliability and access. This initiative will not only enhance preparedness, emergency management, and disaster response, but it will also support the development of place-specific health and social service policies.
  12. Develop a water efficiency program to improve water demand management through water conservation and use of alternative water sources. This initiative will include the development of a comprehensive metering and operations improvement program for community water supplies, as well as public education and technical assistance programs that promote water efficiency.
  13. Optimize healthcare financing to reduce the proportion of uninsured people and the shortage of healthcare professionals, and improve quality, access, and continuity of healthcare provision in disaster-related emergencies. This action will conduct an actuarial and economic feasibility study, identifying conditions needed to reduce the uninsured population and achieve financial sustainability.
  14. Develop and begin implementation of a disaster resilience strategy for the micro and small businesses of Puerto Rico. This initiative will create a mechanism to provide micro or small businesses with grants and loans so they can reopen after a disaster, and incorporate resilience into their operations.  It will also develop specialized financing mechanisms for backup power supply.
  15. Develop public policy to promote the use of nature-based solutions in the reconstruction process. This initiative will define a decision-making framework and cost-benefit analysis tools to consider tradeoffs between immediate economic benefits and future benefits from social and ecosystem services.  Wetland pilots projects should be a priority.
  16. Introduce alternative energy sources to power transportation-related infrastructure. This initiative will identify infrastructure whose outages significantly impacted recovery efforts due to ensuing traffic chaos and subsequent travel delays, and it will carry out a technical feasibility study of alternative power sources.
  17. Improve the Puerto Rico Dam Safety Program to ensure coordination between responsible agencies and enhanced community preparedness. Currently, information sharing among key agencies is limited.  This initiative will integrate the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency in the Puerto Rico Dam Safety Committee, conduct flood risk characterization, and install early-warning systems.