SDG 13: Climate Action Special: Puerto Rico

Series of resilience-funding reports leave Puerto Rico naked, unless this man steps up

The $94 billion would solve immediate needs but fail to prepare the island for the catastrophic climate the latest science says is coming in 15-20 years

No pressure.

Yes, pressure.

When the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission announces its much-awaited Reimagine Puerto Rico recommendations, a whopping 97 of them, at a much-attended press conference June 20, it will be haunted by one really gray cloud: the puzzling absence of risk modeling to build resilience for the far more severe climate impacts Puerto Rico will face in the near term.

“No, that wasn’t done,” Executive Director Malu Blázquez told The Resilience Journal.

The Commission’s report will coincide with two others designed to help local and federal authorities spend the considerable post-Maria reconstruction and resilience funding Puerto Rico is asking Congress.

One was commissioned by the local government and the other is being prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

It falls on Omar Marrero and his team at the Puerto Rico Central Office of Reconstruction, Recovery and Resilience (COR3) to merge these two, factor in other inputs — including the Commission’s 97 suggestions — and submit an updated request to Washington by August 8, a follow-up to this Build Back Better report in November that asked for $94 billion.

Interviews conducted by TRJ for this article reveal the update will dramatically miss the true scope and timing of the climate impacts to likely hit Puerto Rico as imminently as 15-20 years from now.

That means the $94 billion will fall dreadfully short of what is needed, and Puerto Rico will remain vulnerable to the more frequent, severe, diverse and potentially population-emptying disaster activity scientists anticipate during that time frame.

Unless, that is, Marrero acts swiftly to conduct thorough risk modeling, changes the document accordingly, and matches the funding to these near-term risks, not just the immediate post-Maria aftermath the money is currently meant to address.

“I will be looking into it. We have a responsibility to use every available tool, especially one like modeling that follows a data-driven scientific approach,” he said during an exclusive interview with TRJ, adding he wouldn’t want Puerto Rico to go the way of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has found itself returning to Congress multiple times for spending on the same disaster rebuild. “We want to get this right the first time.”

He confided he doesn’t know of any report, commissioned by him or otherwise, that includes modeling, though he suspects none does.

Most disaster planning in the U.S. and the world is based on the linear, gradual climate change we’ve had to date, where catastrophic levels are assumed by century’s end, instead of the fast-escalating, exponential variety the latest climate studies say is actually upon us, and which will move up those catastrophic events to the mid-century mark or sooner.

The good news is that those more severe future risks are subject to fairly precise planning thanks to artificial-intelligence modeling technology, as explained by former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for this previous TRJ story.

“If we’re not looking at what we’re rebuilding today against the future and we’re only looking at the past, then we have ensured we’ll fail in that disaster when it happens.”

Craig Fugate talks about post-Maria modeling in Puerto Rico

Fugate, who ran FEMA during President Obama’s two terms and is now a senior executive at California-based modeling firm One Concern, said models produce scenarios well into the future with a high degree of accuracy to anticipate impacts on such items as vulnerable communities and critical infrastructure, in part using extreme-weather projection data from the latest scientific studies.

Feedback loops to guard (invest) against

Chief among them is this peer-reviewed 2016 landmark multi-author work led by Dr. James Hansen of Columbia University.

It points to various climate feedback loops that are leading to far more intense and frequent “monster” storms, as well as sea level that may rise as much as one meter by mid-century on its way to five by 2100.

Feedback loops are generally not included in most climate studies, which as a result place the more disastrous climate at century’s end and beyond.

But feedbacks, while harder to model than linear trends, are nonetheless real, have already begun triggering rapidly exponential climate change, and should therefore inform the response in cities and countries around the world, including Puerto Rico, with the greatest urgency.

As if confirming and updating the Hansen et. al. findings, this 2018 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense to determine what to do with certain military bases on islands around the world, suggested DoD shut down and relocate just about all of them in the coming years, given the high likelihood that storms, disruptive flooding, and frequent storm surges stemming from the rising oceans, will render those facilities useless as early as the 2030s, with permanent sea-level flooding putting the nail in those coffins soon thereafter.

The result is a fast-emerging coastal-relocation paradigm already seeping into the thinking and planning of a growing number of cities and countries, the one Marrero is just now starting to weigh.

Here in the U.S., that includes increasingly accelerated efforts by such cities as Norfolk and the four-county South Florida Regional Climate Compact as updated in this story about Miami Beach and the West Palm Beach section of this one.

The trend is further validated by this NOAA analysis (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The agency followed up only last week with this report.

And that doesn’t even mention other equally challenging extreme-weather shocks and stresses likely to hit Puerto Rico and vulnerable islands and coasts at about the same time.

In fact, a source working on one of the reports Marrero will use for the funding update revealed that the scope of their work was limited to hurricanes.

“We did not include sea-level rise or other disaster types,” the source said, referring to the heavy mix of heat waves, droughts, wildfires and plagues coming the island’s way.

Déjà vu in Puerto Rico

Much of this information has been hollered from Puerto Rico’s rafters for years, with local scientists repeatedly warning authorities and coastal-property developers in conferences, meetings and the media.

As little as one meter, they assure, will permanently flood or decommission all low-lying coastal zones around Puerto Rico.

That includes most power plants, the Port of San Juan, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the Condado and Isla Verde tourist and residential zones, plus much of coastal Old San Juan, the Convention Center District, former Navy base Roosevelt Roads, and entire neighborhoods with their infrastructure, housing and commerce.

That is as urgent a scenario as should be needed to force a massive redrawing of the island’s basic infrastructure and urban plans in the scale of the epic early-to-mid 20th century development transition the island underwent to usher in industrialization and urbanism.

The peer-reviewed Columbia study says that is the high risk to plan for by mid-century. The DoD and NOAA studies and reports are screaming at us to have alternatives in place 15-20 years from now.

A prime case in point is the Port of San Juan, which became a terrible bottleneck following Maria. Both Marrero and the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission are calling for diversification by using existing regional ports, an approach sure to help during upcoming hurricanes.

The climate studies above, however, posit the high probability that no maritime port on the island will be functional as early as the 2030s — the risk to invest against —requiring imaginative solutions between now and then, perhaps Dutch-style floating docks combined with raised access roads and diverse ways to access and move cargo.

Likewise, none of the local initiatives covered by our interviews for this story contemplate the required immediate investments to enable the international airport on the northwestern town of Aguadilla, the only one in Puerto Rico high enough to be out of sea-level and storm-surge danger, as a replacement to Muñoz Marín.

Given the expense and complexity involved across all needs, the time to begin acting on this resilience and relocation agenda appears, therefore, to be at once, lest Marrero’s post-Maria dollars are largely squandered and the island dramatically emptied by people in search of jobs and quality of life elsewhere.

Speaking of jobs, here’s yet another recent study, this one saying the lack of attention to feedback loops has thrown off not just climate projections, but economic ones, as well — today a source of deep confusion among public- and private-sector leaders in Puerto Rico.

The island is still reeling from a 12-year contraction and a distracting federal fiscal oversight process that shows little sign of ending, a multi-front quagmire worsened by exponential extreme weather and the lack of a complete resilience platform.

The vital role of community voices

To be sure, while this article highlights near-term risks not covered by the immediate-term reports Marrero will use for congressional funding, the measures recommended by those documents will no doubt help minimize loss of property and life.

The latter was placed front and center by the recent Harvard University study revealing Maria led to an estimated 4,645 deaths by year-end 2017, though it says the number was likely closer to 6,000.

The immediate agenda includes more than 1,000 projects Marrero says are game for the $94 billion, as well as community redevelopment and even cultural initiatives that will strengthen resilience.

Marrero said he receives ideas from various groups via a Multistakeholder Advisory Commission set up to complement COR3’s work.

That’s how Reimagine Puerto Rico can influence the process, he advised, with the 97 recommendations included in the group’s report to be released June 20, exactly nine months to the day Maria smashed through the island.

“We will also engage others and share ways they can incorporate our findings to build resilience,” Blázquez said. That effort will include companies, NGOs, community leaders and citizens in general.

The six-month Reimagine process included several rounds of impressive stakeholder engagement across six strategic areas: energy, housing, physical infrastructure, human infrastructure, economic development, and a bundle that included health, education and social services.

“Our recommendations come from the people who participated, as well as technical experts who worked on [hurricanes] Katrina and Sandy and from 100 Resilient Cities,” she added.

The latter is the world’s leading resilience initiative, a program of the Rockefeller Foundation that selected 100 cities and assigned funds and a Chief Resilience Officer to each, along with a resilience-mentorship program. Reimagine Puerto Rico was born out of 100RCs and deployed its resilience framework, which has become the most followed such guideline on the planet. San Juan is a 100RC city.

The Commission, Blázquez said, combined 100RCs with FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework.

The 100RC program also includes some 80 partner companies and NGOs that counsel and provide solutions to member cities, and they include several leading global risk-modeling providers.

The Malu Blázquez interview was conducted in Spanish.

‘Our Moonshot Moment’

Which brings us back to Marrero. He recalled that the agency’s name originally included only the first two Rs, until he realized that “this is beyond just recovery and reconstruction. This is about resilience.” And COR3 was born.

To organize the agency’s investments once the federal money comes in, Marrero has adopted the 12 high-vulnerability sectors and multiple support functions found in the same FEMA Framework used by the Reimagine Commission. “That’s the one we’re following.”

COR3 is also following a core inspiration Marrero inserted in the team’s work early on.

“This is our Moonshot Moment, and we intend to seize it,” a reference to the 1960s heroic and rocket-rapid efforts that led to the lunar landing.

“We have this one shot to get this right, to spend this money wisely and make Puerto Rico resilient to climate change.”

Got that right. So came his pledge to look into modeling, as he awaits the reports,

And we pledged to meet again, dive into each of the 12 areas, and gauge whether the resilience that will emerge from that process will secure a viable Puerto Rico come mid-century.

Stay tuned.


This is the third installment of Puerto Rico & Island Resilience, a special content series and deep dive by TRJ on lessons the post-Maria Puerto Rico example holds for the islands of the world given their unique vulnerabilities to the escalating future risks of climate change.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor & Publisher of The Resilience Journal.

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