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Inspiring leaders: building more resilient communities in Puerto Rico

At Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR), we are focused on community resilience and declared August as Resilience Month. In order to promote self-sufficiency and community resilience in vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico, and recognizing the importance of citizen participation in the recovery of our Island by building more resilient communities, we spoke with a group of recognized community leaders who have assumed a very important role in this process.

Lucy Cruz, president of the G8 (eight communities bordering the Martin Peña Canal), Rafael Rivera, president of the Pro-Development Committee of Villa Cañona, Inc, Maribel Hernández, of Unidos por Utuado and the Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña Project, 

and Carmen Villanueva, Community Outreach Coordinator for FPR’s Whole Community Resilience Planning Program (WCRP) and community leader, share their impressions of the projects and initiatives they have promoted in their respective communities, which exemplify community resilience in the local context. They also share some of the lessons learned from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and offer their advice on how communities can cope with the current pandemic, the new hurricane season, and any future scenarios we may face.

The 2017 hurricane season caused insurmountable devastation in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria affected all of Puerto Rico with recorded winds of up to 155 miles per hour, swells of up to 47 feet, massive landslides, and catastrophic localized flooding of up to 38 inches. In addition, due to their severity and trajectory, relief efforts and immediate assistance were delayed for up to three days due to the closure of significantly damaged ports and airports. The geography of the Island further complicated the relief efforts.

Undoubtedly, our communities need to strengthen their methods of response to these types of disasters and become more resilient. Community resilience is a mechanism for communities to come together to find recovery solutions to increase their preparedness for future events. In that sense, Lucy Cruz emphasized during the conversation that the group of eight communities surrounding the Martin Peña Canal that she presides over, and that serves more than 23,000 people, is focused on achieving justice in all spheres of government, both state and federal. She also recounted her experience as a leader in the midst of the emergency following Maria’s passage, her preparedness strategy, eviction of residents to shelters, the creation of resilient dining rooms and the construction of 115 hurricane-resistant roofs, among other achievements in her community. “Volunteerism was, and has been, too relevant as the Puerto Rican diaspora in Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts,” the community leader says.

For his part, Rafael Rivera explains that “the recognition of the needs of a community is key for its development” and tells that in his community Villa Cañona, as part of the first efforts after the passage of the Hurricane, the needs of the residents were monitored and the accesses were cleaned. After the roads were opened, the community’s focus was on identifying a space where they could refrigerate medicine and prepare food. In this way, “the Technology Center became a collection and relief center for the community,” he adds. Finally, Rivera emphasizes the importance of collaboration, and specifically mentions the Ricky Martin Foundation as a source of help to have achieved all these tasks and of the future effort to create a space that serves as a shelter, community kitchen and dining room, with a passive park and an outdoor gym that is contemplated to be built as a need that will provide that resilient space needed in times of emergency.

Meanwhile, Maribel Hernández, leader of Unidos por Utuado and the Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña project, began her presentation by stating that the people of the central part of the island were not prepared to receive the onslaught of a hurricane like María in terms of planning. “The geographical area prevents progress and harms businesses. During that time of emergency, Unidos por Utuado began as an initiative to collaborate and meet the needs of the shelters and communities of Utuado and surrounding towns,” Hernandez said. The Utuado leader announces several initiatives they are carrying out to achieve hydroelectric power generation in their community through a cooperative model, and mentions as part of the pending projects the creation of a Consortium through the application for CDBG-DR funds.

Finally, Hill Brothers community leader and FPR Community Outreach team member, Carmen Villanueva, provides several tips for residents of at-risk communities to deal with disasters effectively. Carmen begins by emphasizing the importance of accepting that a community’s greatest resource is its people. “To the extent that we accept and identify this, it can work,” she reiterates. Villanueva identifies and describes food insecurity as a problem that one does not want to recognize, but which, nevertheless, “has been recurrent in different emergencies such as today’s pandemic. She also stresses that a community must focus on several aspects, such as security, food, mitigation and the search for an alternative energy and drinking water system. Carmen ends her participation by emphasizing that it is precisely in the midst of need that creativity resurfaces in communities.

FPR has several programs focused on promoting community resilience in Puerto Rico, including the WCRP and Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative. Under the WCRP Program, communities have the right to actively participate in the design of their resilience plans by integrating their residents into the development, decision-making, and planning process. This Program seeks to provide the resources and tools to develop comprehensive community resilience plans through a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA), the benefits of which will enable communities to develop policies, participatory planning, identify initiatives, strategies, projects, and management capacity that best meet their needs.

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