Behind the Veil: Enhancing Resilience in Rural Puerto Rican Communities

by Emma Fiala


In 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by two consecutive hurricanes, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. These hurricanes caused upwards of $90 billion dollars, cost more than 3,000 people their lives and plunged the island into darkness when the electric grid failed. The last major hurricane that hit the island was more than 20 years ago, so a false sense of security and inadequate disaster preparation also played a role in post-hurricane recovery. While the damage was impressive, more shocking was the realization that Puerto Rico, as a whole, had significant vulnerabilities across a variety of sectors and regions. This sentiment was highlighted by many professionals in Puerto Rico as they described how Hurricane Maria “lifted the veil” of security to show the underlying fragility of their institutions and infrastructure.

This paper aims to examine the factors that contributed to the fragile island and investigate possible avenues of resilience, particularly for limited-resource, geographically challenged rural communities in Puerto Rico. To examine these factors, this paper will discuss successful models and generate questions for future areas of research. Additionally, this paper will outline the origins of Puerto Rico’s current economy and financial policies, thereby uncovering some of the underlying issues. Lastly, several successful models for combating these issues will be presented and outstanding questions posed.


Before diving into the fragilities of Puerto Rico, an understanding of how Puerto Rico came to be with respect to financial policies and the economy must be explored. Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain in the early 1500s and was ceded to the United States as an unincorporated territory in 1898 as a result of the Treaty of Paris, which concluded the Spanish-American War.

At this time, the Foraker Act of 1900 was enacted, which created a Puerto Rican civilian government with minimal autonomy. The act essentially separated ties from Spanish rule and implemented U.S. Federal laws, with the exception of Internal Revenue Laws. This act was superseded by the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, which provided citizenship without voting rights to Puerto Ricans, established a bill of rights and granted federal, state and local tax exemptions (triple-tax exempt) for Puerto Rican bonds regardless of bond holder residence. The tax exemptions were aimed at stimulating the economy of Puerto Rico by increasing the return on investments made into Puerto Rico. The act also removed the debt limit. In 1920, the Merchant Marine Act (The Jones Act) was signed, requiring the shipment of all goods between U.S. ports to be on U.S. built, owned and operated ships. This act is highly controversial and has been recently reexamined by the Federal Reserve of New York, which recommends a temporary suspension of the Jones Act to evaluate its efficacy.

In 1928, hurricane San Felipe struck Puerto Rico, causing widespread damage, particularly to Puerto Rican’s main economic resource, the agriculture sector,. A year later, the Great Depression began. In 1932, Hurricane San Ciprian hit Puerto Rico. The combination of these three events caused the collapse of the existing infrastructure and generated a public health crisis. As a result, President Roosevelt signed the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) into law, which acted similarly to his U.S. “New Deal.”

The creation of this organization led to the construction of various public works, notably a cement plant for construction of hurricane resistant structures, seven major hydroelectric power plants for the electrification of the rural interior, and roads and trails for improved transportation. It has been argued that the success of the New Deal can be at least attributed to the locally run structure of the PRRA, which avoided the top-down control and interference of the federal government. Two important publicly owned agencies created by the PRRA were the Puerto Rico Cement Corporation (PRCC) and the Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority (PRWRA), designed to create a more resilient island. Toward the end of the 1930s, public works also included construction of several military bases, as the U.S.prepared for WWII. Essentially, the New Deal shifted the paradigm from relief to reconstruction.

In 1947, the Industrial Incentives Act (Operation Bootstrap) was created by a partnership between the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, headed by Luis Luis Muñoz Marín, and the U.S. federal government. The goal of Operation Bootstrap was to transition Puerto Rico from a primarily agrarian economy (with sugar as its cash crop) to a primarily industrialized economy. The act provided a wide variety of tax exemptions and differential rental rates to private firms for a 10-year time period and resulted in 80 new industrial plants by 1950, with more to come in the following years. This attracted a variety of sectors, notably pharmaceutical companies, electronics and textiles. The industrialization of Puerto Rico aimed to create jobs, but increases in industrial jobs did not outweigh the decreases in agriculture and home-based employment, causing unemployment to rise and emigration to the mainland U.S. to increase.

Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth in 1952. At this time, Puerto Rico became exempt from annual balancing of their budget. In 1961, a constitutional amendment also allowed an increase in the debt capacity, so additional triple-tax-exempt bonds were issued to balance their budget. This deficit-financing was not sustainable, as it caused greater expenditure than revenue. Complicating the matter was the high credit ratings of the municipal bonds despite the lower capacity for payback. Puerto Rico was additionally forbidden from declaring bankruptcy in 1984 by Congress.

In 1996, after years of tax-exemption benefits, section 936 of the Internal Revenue Codes was eliminated, thus removing the tax-exemptions for corporations over a 10-year grace period. With the signing of NAFTA and its relative success, investors no longer had significant incentives to remain in Puerto Rico, so as investments decreased, the economy contracted. To compound the Puerto Rican recession, the Great Recession began two years later. In 2014, Puerto Rican debt was downgraded to below investment grade. This triggered certain repayment clauses, forcing Puerto Rico to pay back its investors earlier than expected, bringing the total debt to over $70 billion dollars. Lastly, to bring Puerto Rican history to current day, Hurricanes Irma and Maria brought devastation to the island, causing vulnerabilities to be brought to the forefront of discussion surrounding the restoration and future of Puerto Rico. To combat the island’s financial challenges and need for resilience, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) was passed in 2016 and allowed for the establishment of the Federal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB). The FOMB’s role is to restructure the debt and expedite infrastructure projects.


Three main underlying issues were identified during the Convergence Lab. They include fragile infrastructure of water and electric utilities, weak or absent public health policies and disaster planning, and the mass exodus of the labor force. While these issues were present prior to Maria, they certainly were made widely apparent post Maria and have significantly impacted the whole island, but particularly rural communities. It is important to begin a discussion of solutions with an understanding of these underlying issues, so that solutions can be designed with restoration and resilience in mind rather than simple disaster recovery.


One of the main challenges that Puerto Rico faced prior to the hurricanes was with their only electric grid, completely managed by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). PREPA is government-owned and is responsible for electricity generation, transmission and distribution. PREPA had filed for bankruptcy and was more than $9 billion dollars in debt prior to Maria. In addition, at least 30 percent of its employees, many of whom were linemen, opted to leave PREPA in search of better opportunities. To add to the financial and labor challenges facing PREPA, the island’s power plants were aging and required around $4 billion to update. All of these challenges were magnified after Maria and contributed to the slow and tedious restoration of the grid.

In January 2018, Governor Rosselló promoted the privatization of PREPA and the ending of the monopoly of electricity. He hopes that this privatization will allow for better service at lower prices. Electricity is currently averaging around $0.21 per kWh ($0.12 averaged nationally). PREPA plans to contract outside companies to take over the transmission and distribution aspects of the utility, while selling off generation assets. Supporters of privatization believe that this will allow for a more optimized system with improved management and maintenance. Governor Rosselló, along with the FOMB, believes that privatization may also promote microgrids and renewables.

Opposing privatization are the mayor of San Juan, who believes that electricity is a public good and should stay in the hands of the public, rather than private entities who may or may not implement microgrids and renewables. Evidence from the University of Iowa argued that the privatization of water in Puerto Rico and in Bolivia was a mistake. While compelling to reduce costs and improve service, actually have contributed to increased water rates, poor service provision to low-profit areas and a deterioration of water quality. Puerto Rico experimented briefly with privatization of the Puerto Rican Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), and due to the aforementioned reasons, ended the contract and again assumed responsibility for water.

In addition to the privatization question, an outstanding question surrounding electricity in Puerto Rico centers around fuel sources. Puerto Rico can choose to rebuild using traditional energy sources, such as natural gas, coal and oil, or it can rebuild a totally new system using renewables. The island currently heavily relies on imported fossil fuels, so transitioning away from a dependent-state to an independent-state using the abundance of solar could be one potential solution for a more resilient island. Additionally, PREPA has a goal to restructure their energy profile, so that 15% of energy comes from renewables by 2035 and 100% by 2050. The largest debate argues for investing in restoring the current fossil fuel reliant systems or investing in a completely new “grid of the future.”

There are significant weaknesses with PREPA and the electric grid of Puerto Rico in general. The largest contributing factors include decreased labor supply, huge debt, poor maintenance and outstanding questions regarding privatization and renewables. For rural communities, problems are magnified. Initial research showed that it took significant time for power to be restored to cities following Maria, but more than a year for power to be restored to all communities.

Angel Echevarria, an energy graduate student from Arizona State University, spoke to the Global Convergence Lab about his research post-Maria. His research utilized satellite images to analyze the restoration of the grid, particularly focusing on Jayuya, a small mountainous municipality in rural Puerto Rico. He found inconsistencies in the way energy was restored, noting wealthier families seemed to get power faster than others. While mountainous regions prove more challenging for repair attempts, this observation may provide some evidence that power is inequitable. If true, rural communities, particularly low-income and geographically challenging communities, require improved resiliency measures, so that in the event of a disaster, they are not left behind.

In a similar vein, many rural communities were without potable drinking water for nearly a year post-Maria. The water plants were powered by electricity, but with damage to the grid, water was unable to be generated and transported to communities. Generators were used initially, but much of the water produced was sent to urban centers, leaving rural communities without access to clean water. As a result, it was not uncommon for people to obtain water from local rivers and streams, presenting public health problems and highlighting the need for more resilient systems.


While it may seem obvious that there were significant public health concerns following Maria, less obvious may be the exact ways that lack of electricity, poor roads and difficulties with funding affected Puerto Ricans. To explore the major public health issues raised by Maria was Jonathan Castillo Polanco, a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico-San Juan studying Public Health and Environmental Policy. Jonathan is also a researcher at the National Institute of Energy and Sustainability (INESI) as well as assisting with energy public policies with the Puerto Rican Senate. His lecture explored the existing public health problems that Hurricane Maria exposed and their consequences post-Maria. Topic areas included hospitals, generator use, potable water and nutrition.

A month after Maria struck Puerto Rico, only a limited number of hospitals were functional. The operational hospitals were mainly located in San Juan and other major urban centers and were primarily using emergency generators for their electrical needs. As a result, President Trump sent the U.S. Navy Comfort Ship (USNCS) to San Juan to support healthcare delivery. The first problem was that this ship was based near San Juan, a city with at least some operational facilities. The second problem with the USNSC was that people were required to be seen by a medical professional prior to being triaged at the ship. Once at the ship, they were reevaluated and either admitted or sent elsewhere. According to the research performed by Jonathan, of the 400 people triaged at the USNSC, only 10 were admitted. This ship provided only acute care to those in emergencies, while having enough resources to admit 1,000 patients.

This presented quite a public health problem, as many did not have acute emergencies, but suffered from chronic disease, such as diabetes, hypertension or chronic kidney disease. Without treatment, these diseases can certainly become acutely life-threatening, but can somewhat be managed through lifestyle. Lastly, as the hurricane destroyed roads, bridges and means of transport, those with injuries or disease were unable to physically seek care. People were found inside their homes, dead, but without services to pronounce death, bodies could not be appropriately processed through government channels.

In terms of electricity, many Puerto Ricans had electric generators in their possession. However, there are several problems with using electric generators: increased pollution, respiratory disease and cost. After Maria, more than 500,000 electric generators were being used daily by Puerto Ricans. These generators run on gasoline, so burning gasoline for electricity generates significant pollutants into the surrounding spaces as well as contributing to noise pollution. Regulations surrounding generator use were largely relaxed post-Maria to accomodate for demand;however, lack of knowledge in proper use and associated risks led to increased respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and even death from carbon monoxide poisoning. Additional deaths and illnesses occurred due to lack of electricity, as certain medications require refrigeration and ventilators require constant electricity for life support. As recovery was slow and many families still relied on generators for electricity, the supplies of fuel dwindled and the cost rose. In Vieques, families reported paying up to $700 per month for fuel for their generators, while their annual income averages at $17,000. This energy poverty exacerbated physical health conditions, but also largely contributed to stress and mental health issues, which can have significant long-term effects.

An island without electricity is also an island without water. As previously discussed, some people resorted to drinking river and stream water. While drinking river water at the origin of the river is relatively safe, people bathed, washed dishes and contaminated the water for those further down the mountain. The EPA found enterococcus, a bacteria responsible for UTIs, meningitis and GI infections, in all fresh water tested in Puerto Rico. In addition to this bacteria, leptospirosis cases increased dramatically, compared to its natural endemic rate. Leptospirosis is a serious disease caused by drinking rat-urine contaminated water that can lead to kidney damage, respiratory failure and death.

Lastly, Jonathan spoke about the importance of food security. By WHO definition, food security is access to permanent, sufficient and nutritious food. After Maria, 85 percent of the population did not meet that definition, as they had little to eat and even fewer nutritious foods. A typical “hurricane diet” consisted of canned meats and foods which were high in sodium and low in nutritional value. This can be dangerous in a public health aspect as many chronic diseases can be managed with diet. In addition to posing a threat to those with chronic disease, a consistently poor diet is correlated with poor outcomes as an adult.

The evidence in support of developing stronger public health policies and balancing the budget is apparent. An island in debt cannot dedicate funds and labor to improve its infrastructure. Fragile grids lead to large-scale black outs and as seen in the months after Maria, electricity is life. While urban communities struggled with lack of electricity, it was even more negatively in terms of impact for rural communities, highlighting the need to develop more resilient systems.


emma 1.jpg

While there has been a significant amount of emigration out of Puerto Rico following Maria, emigration has been an ongoing issue for over 50 years. The figure to the right shows the net migration for Puerto Rico from 1967 through 2017. Data was obtained by utilizing the World Bank Database (pictured right). Net migration was defined as the difference between immigration and emigration and has been consistently negative, meaning Puerto Ricans are leaving Puerto Rico. In addition to emigration, the total population growth turned negative in 2005. Of those who are leaving Puerto Rico, there is a disproportionately high number of working-aged people.


This was reflected by many anecdotes shared throughout the trip. In Vieques, there is an entire plaza dedicated to the children who left Vieques for better opportunities (Plaza de Hijos Ausentes, pictured right). In addition to Vieques, Utuado is another municipality that has been suffering from stagnation and the loss of local talent. Utuado was once a vibrant community filled with youth, business and aspirations. Its economy was predominantly agriculture-based, with a main crop of coffee. It also was a larger producer of energy from the massive public work of Dos Bocas, a hydroelectric dam that provides energy to San Juan. Due to policy shifts, Utuado declined as nothing was done to replace the agriculture industry. It is currently regarded as a “dying city” filled with children and the elderly, as working-age citizens have to commute to urban centers for work or have completely left the island for educational and career opportunities. With the damage from Hurricane Maria, Utuado experienced even more “brain drain” and migration. During the Convergence Lab’s time in Utuado, the town center was nearly empty, except for the few elderly people walking nearby and a fallen tree, still not removed over one year after it had fallen. “Brain drain” and mass migration are not new problems, but they do illustrate yet another underlying issue that was exposed after Hurricane Maria. Now that these issues have been highlighted it is apparent that rural communities need ways to become more resilient to economic changes and natural disasters.


As a reminder, Puerto Rico geographically is highly diverse. It is around 3,500 square miles and contains beautiful shore lines as well as a fairly large mountain range and rain forest. Off the coast of Puerto Rico mainland are several smaller islands, notably Vieques and Culebra, which are both highly dependent on Puerto Rico for electricity and water. The Convergence Lab visited or learned about many locations in Puerto Rico (see red stars on map).

After identifying three of many underlying issues and realizing the challenges that rural communities face, several research questions were generated. Notably, how might geographically-challenging and resource-limited rural communities in Puerto Rico build resilient and sustainable infrastructure and increase social and financial capital? This question will be answered using several case studies from key locations visited: Utuado, Adjuntas, Añasco, Humacao and Vieques.

Emma 3.jpg


Utuado is a rural community located in the mountain range of the interior of Puerto Rico. As previously discussed, Utuado has been facing economic and migration challenges from poor job prospects. It also is home to a massive hydroelectric dam near Dos Bocas, which produces power for urban centers. While Utuado itself produces electricity, power was not restored to Utuado until many months after Maria. The combination of these factors led businessman CP Smith to make plans to create Puerto Rico’s first electric cooperative in Utuado, called The Hydroelectric Cooperative of the Mountain. He believes that the “bottom-up” approach to energy will be ultimately more cost effective, environmentally friendly and sustainable. Co-ops are different than private companies in that the benefits and profits stay within the communities for further reinvestment. Rates would be determined by locals and energy generation would also be local. He reported that the hydroelectric dam in Utuado is able to produce enough energy for Utuado, neighboring municipalities of Jayuya and Adjunctas and have excess, which could be provided to Ponce.

This type of model has been widely successful in the electrification of rural America, so rural Puerto Rico may also be able to benefit from this type of organization as well. CP believed that while privatization is not the answer to the electric grid problems, privatization will allow co-ops to form, which ultimately might be the answer to their problems. In addition to solving grid resiliency issues, CP desired in bringing businesses back to Utuado. He suggested typical solutions, such as allowing companies to access buildings for a very low monthly fee, giving back sales tax, and other financial incentives to attract business. To prevent hurricanes from devastating Utuado in the future, he recommended that mitigation plans be up to date and submitted to the proper authorities. During this past hurricane, several mayors left their mitigation plans expire and were unable to receive FEMA aid, so making sure paperwork is accurate and active can alleviate some of the problems that Utuado faced. CP additionally promoted bold, courageous leaders citing passiveness and acquiescence to be factors in allowing key bridges and the hydroelectric plant to out of code and damaged. Lastly, in mainland US, insurance is abundant and is utilized frequently. In Puerto Rico, some families do not have papers that document their land ownership let alone home or car insurance. When these physical items are damaged, families lose everything, which contributes to inefficiency. By rebuilding Utuado from the bottom-up, incorporating local stakeholders and keeping those in power accountable, CP’s Utuado may be a successful model for other municipalities looking to escape dependency.


Water system in Corcovada

Water system in Corcovada

Anais Roque, an ASU student was investigating what makes certain rural communities more resilient than others. She decided to research Corcovada in Añasco and Mariana in Humacao because both of these communities were able to restore electricity and water only weeks following Maria when neighboring communities had to wait months. These communities are different with respect to their beliefs, but they both encountered numerous struggles with electric and water inconsistencies. When these problems were not addressed adequately or timely by PREPA/PRASA, the communities decided that for change to occur, they needed to initiate it. This self-starter attitude led to highly organized communities with clear goals, responsibilities and accountability. Once established, these communities contacted third-party organizations, such as NGOs, schools, churches, and family in the US to bring resources.

One example of a religious collaboration was in Corcovada. According to story, an engineer was exiled to Corcovada after refusing to take part in military endeavours. He saw the need for a water system, so in exchange for construction of a church, he helped construct a community aqueduct system. An example of an educational collaboration was in Mariana. They have an agreement with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). UPR students in health have internships in Mariana and gain experience, in exchange, the community has access to reasonable healthcare. Both communities are open to receiving students and researchers, but in return they expect students and researchers to share what they have learned back to the community and to the general public. By having this type of publicity, these communities can facilitate other collaborations easier and together, build a diverse set of relationships that solve many community issues. While still by definition dependent on outside aid, these models can be successful and sustainable by transcending the need for financing through symbiotic relationships.

Entrance of Casa Pueblo

Entrance of Casa Pueblo


Casa Pueblo is a grassroot organization that began in 1980 to oppose the mining of resources in the central mountain range. The mining would have brought great destruction to the environment and left Adjunctas, Lares, Jayuya and Utuado municipalities with little benefits. The convergence lab met with Alexis Massol González, the founder and discussed how one voice can lead to hundreds, thousands and eventually can make a difference. Since 1980, Casa Pueblo has been opposing various projects that would be detrimental to the environment. Initially, Casa Pueblo was unable to attract support as their main outreach projects were lectures. After realizing that the community would not engage in such activities, they decided to hold a music concert where through music, dance and culture their message was conveyed.

This type of model for success relies on the ability to engage with the community. For some communities it may be music related, for others sports. Regardless of the community, the importance of social connectedness, building social capital and relationships helps communities develop resilience. In terms of energy systems, Casa Pueblo installed solar panels and batteries. During Hurricane Maria, the island lost power, but Casa Pueblo was resilient. Additional projects that Casa Pueblo has implemented include developing a classroom in the forest where students can learn about the environment directly from nature. Other projects include Casa Pueblo radio, the butterfly garden, hydroponic farms and a completely off-the-grid auditorium. When questioned on the funding for these projects, Casa Pueblo replied that they receive most of their funds from outside donations. Casa Pueblo is a good model for facilitating social capital and creating a strong, united community voice. Their commitment to the environment through solar energy can also be an example of the success of solar power for energy in rural Puerto Rico.


Another model for building resiliency can be seen with Footprint, a nonprofit that “sees every natural disaster as an opportunity for sustainable development.” Footprint focuses on facilitating community development in an environmentally responsible way. It does this by working to reduce fossil fuel use, implementing green energy systems and collaborating with local community partners to ensure needs are met. In Vieques, Footprint has been working with the Emergency Management Office of Vieques to assess needs. After their needs assessment period, they began designing solar energy systems with storage to power communications, lighting and refrigeration.

UMN Global Convergence Team in Vieques at the round table workshop headed by Footprint

UMN Global Convergence Team in Vieques at the round table workshop headed by Footprint


In terms of sustainable development and resilience, Footprint acts to build initial capacity. By partnering with the community, they are able to accurately triage problems, implement sustainable solutions and leave the community with better infrastructure that support their own development. The convergence lab attended a day workshop in Vieques that was facilitated by Footprint, but ran by several key stakeholders. By bringing together community members, students, government and business owners, Footprint managed connect stakeholders together.


Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but more importantly, it unveiled systemic vulnerabilities. To understand how these vulnerabilities developed, this paper explored the history of Puerto Rico with respect to its economy and relevant financial policies. From historical record, it was clear that Puerto Rico suffered from enormous debt brought on by perhaps, a poor choice of investment incentives. The pressure to transform into an industrial economy caused increased unemployment, therefore initiating large-scale emigration and depletion of the workforce. Additionally, as Puerto Rico struggled with their debt, infrastructure was not well-maintained and fell into disrepair. Poor disaster planning, a false sense of security and disorganized institutions created a perfect environment for destruction. As aid and the restoration process began, urban Puerto Rico was able to recover, but to this day, rural Puerto Rican communities still feel the effects. This situation led to the need to design, implement and maintain sustainable and resilient systems and communities. Some solutions from the Convergence Lab included local energy co-ops as a way to provide equitable, affordable and reliable power, collaborative-based communities that focus on developing symbiotic relationships with outside resources, local nonprofits that bring communities together through shared beliefs, and international nonprofits that act to build capacity and facilitate empowerment. While there are other successful models in the world, these four are being implemented in Puerto Rican rural/geographically challenged communities and could be used as models for more communities in the near future.


1. Puerto Rico has had similar problems in the past with hurricanes and recessions. They created infrastructure programs that were aimed at restoration and not relief. It seems like these ideas were successful, but over time attention to programs like these decreased. What parts of prior successful plans could be used today?

2. As rural communities in MN and the US face issues with population decline and brain drain to cities, what strategies in rural America has been useful? Could those transfer to PR?

3. In addition to population decline in rural America, rural Americans have been doing co-ops as a way to get electricity and other utilities. Why aren’t more PR communities doing this?

4. How can we incentivise investors without crippling the future economy? (Not through triple tax exempt bonds, but something else?)

5. We should investigate privatization of utilities to see success and failures.

6. MISC Questions: Building social capital a. How different are these communities’ needs? b. What does budgeting and finances look like? c. What cultural considerations need to be looked at?


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