Humanitarian Response and Climate Resilience in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Fiona slammed into the eastern coast of Puerto Rico on September 18, 2022, covering the island with more than 20 inches of rain, causing flash floods and landslides, shearing rooftops from homes, and washing away bridges. Record rainfall and hurricane-force winds shut down decrepit water, sanitation, and electrical infrastructure. Power and clean water services were severed to communities across Puerto Rico and hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate from their homesin fear of reliving Hurricane Maria’s destruction in 2017. Although 90 percent of the population had services restored within two weeks after the storm, as of November 1, more than 2,000 households remained without power.

Hurricane Fiona is the latest tropical storm contributing to a perpetual state of insecurity in Puerto Rico. Insufficient recovery between storms has enhanced vulnerabilities among residents, exacerbating the impacts of severe weather events. Fiona’s destruction is less severe than Hurricane Maria's in 2017, which caused catastrophic damage to most of the island. Still, Fiona caused substantial damage, and humanitarian access was obstructed due to damage to key infrastructure, preventing vulnerable communities from accessing essential services.

Climate disaster preparations in Puerto Rico, including efforts to mitigate damage and planning for effective responses, are increasingly important as hurricanes become more frequent and more destructive. After Hurricane Maria, U.S. federal agencies and Puerto Rican local authorities attempted to build an anticipatory response capacity to increase climate resilience on the island but did not provide adequate resources. Investments in sustainable infrastructure can help the most vulnerable communities, particularly in the southern part of Puerto Rico. The Biden administration has pledged to support Puerto Rico in recovering from Fiona’s impact and in building resilience against future tropical storms. Successful investments in resilience building, however, should also address the persistent social, economic, and political insecurities within Puerto Rico that contribute to the severity of the impacts of weather events. 

Q1: Why is the devastation so severe?

A1: Puerto Rico, a “U.S. territory in crisis,” is navigating several concurrent crises. A large public debt and shrinking population have weakened the island’s economy and the island’s poverty rate of 44 percent is the highest in the United States, more than double of any U.S. state. These conditions have enhanced the vulnerability of the island's communities and infrastructure to the devastation of tropical storms, particularly the fragile electrical grid, which went down prior to the storm making landfall.

Puerto Rico has struggled to make a full recovery following Hurricane Maria’s devastation, due to its struggling economy, endemic political corruption, and U.S. government mismanagement of the response effort. Hurricane Maria caused extreme devastation to the 3.4 million residents across Puerto Rico. Electricity was cut to the whole island, access to potable water was limited, bridges collapsed, streets were in disarray, and roofs of houses were torn off. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands were internally displaced. U.S. and Puerto Rican authorities were underprepared for the Category 4 storm, which caused $94.4 billion in damages—including $780 million losses in agriculture yields.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) 2017 report to Congress, Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was the largest and longest in the agency’s history. The GAO report indicated that 85 percent of communication towers were nonoperational, dozens of roads and bridges collapsed, satellite phones did not work, and many fuel tankers were lost. Basic safeguards were not put into place before Maria’s landfall, and the federal response was riddled with denial of the extent of the mortality, hoarding of vital resources, and a failure to invest in longer-term climate resilience. For example, although the death toll was initially claimed to be 64 people by the Puerto Rican government, a George Washington University study on the estimate of excess mortality found the death count to be 2,975 people. The study found responding agencies were not trained in risk communications and local hospitals were not recording all death certificates, which dramatically altered the hurricane’s direct and indirect mortality rates. Local communities, especially the elderly and impoverished, were exposed to extreme health risks due to major infrastructure challenges that reduced the ability to access health services.

Although Congress quickly approved $20 billion of assistance following Maria, severe restrictions imposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) prevented Puerto Rico from accessing most of the funds. Under the Trump administration, the Office of Management and Budget obstructed the disbursement of disaster funds, mandating complex interagency review processes for approving recovery grants. In March 2019 congressional concerns over the delays of aid led to a probe by the HUD Office of Inspector General. During the investigation, HUD officials admitted the department had failed "to comply with the law" in meeting a congressionally mandated deadline to unlock federal recovery funds for Puerto Rico. Former HUD secretary Ben Carson defended the agency’s actions by blaming corruption and questioning “Puerto Rico’s capacity to manage these funds.” Despite the findings of this investigation, the Trump administration continued to oppose disaster funding for Puerto Rico. By April 2021, Puerto Rico had received less than 1 percent of allocated funding.

Reconstruction has been further constrained by political corruption. Two governors have been ousted over the last three years; one was pushed out by grassroots movements due to political mismanagement, and the other was arrested on corruption charges. As a result, post-Maria repairs primarily consisted of temporary fixes for failing infrastructure without addressing substantial and persistent vulnerabilities.

Q2: What are the humanitarian implications of the recent hurricane?

A2: Although Fiona's aftermath seems small compared to the crisis following Hurricane Maria, experts have predicted that the latest destruction could result in a multibillion-dollar economic disaster due to the poor recovery following Maria. The failure to build safeguards to withstand future storms is driving current access and food security challenges. Despite enhanced FEMA resources, roads and bridges swept away by mudslides have left rescue and response teams struggling to reach and assess the storm's devastation in remote areas.

Residents across the southern part of Puerto Rico were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Fiona’s winds and rainfall. Two weeks after the storm, the Penuelas and Culebra municipalities reported 50 percent of pharmacies operating on generator power, while other southern towns cope with decimated crops and the destruction of key infrastructure. Residents on the northwest and southern coasts remain susceptible to major health risks due to ongoing power outages. Although most hospitals are fully operational, some residents experience difficulties reaching them. As of October 24, La Fortaleza—the operations center in the executive branch of Puerto Rico—reported 251 critical incidents preventing local communities from reaching essential services. La Autoridad de Carreteras and Transportación highlighted 15 roadway closures, including 7 bridges, and 194 landslides, creating access challenges for communities in need of medical and food assistance.

The substantial rainfall destroyed $159 million in crops, including staple agricultural products communities rely on for food security and economic growth. One farmer in Yabucoa reported a loss of 20,000 plantain trees worth thousands of dollars. Although the agricultural sector plans to provide aid to farmers, it will take time for the land to heal and crops to grow—there will be a period of low agricultural yield across the island.

Q3: What can previous disaster response efforts teach us about the future climate resilience in humanitarian response in Puerto Rico?

A3: As climate change worsens the frequency and intensity of North Atlantic tropical storms, the recovery gap between severe weather events is likely to become more consequential for vulnerable populations. Climate resilience is a framework that anticipates, prepares for, adapts to, and supports the recovery from climate change and natural disasters. In the case of Puerto Rico, working towards resilience has become increasingly vital in its efforts to prepare for and respond to disasters that disproportionally impact the most vulnerable communities. To support climate resilience, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies developed the Climate Charter, which is intended to serve as a framework for humanitarian organizations seeking to improve their response to the impacts of climate disasters.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed nearly 1,800 electricity generators. These generators mitigated the electricity outages from Hurricane Fiona in 2022—likely preventing hundreds of deaths. Similarly, Direct Relief, a U.S.-based humanitarian organization, installed over 400 solar panels in medical clinics, fire stations, schools, and municipal water pumps after Hurricane Maria, which curbed hundreds of energy deficits for critical facilities during Hurricane Fiona. Both efforts show that preemptive climate resilience matters in disaster response efforts, consistent with the Climate Charter’s commitment one, commitment four, and commitment six, which outline meaningful and intentional climate action. Yet preemptive resilience approaches were only effectively done in response to electrical issues, while other essential infrastructure and the agriculture sector lacked a similar response. U.S. agencies should recognize DOD’s efforts in the energy sector as a success and standardize similar climate action in their humanitarian response and resilience planning across other sectors.

Climate resilience is also not limited to provision of resources. The Climate Charter’s commitment three encourages humanitarian organizations and international responders to “promote the leadership of local communities and actors.” Often, local initiatives create essential infrastructures to respond to crises and need foreign assistance to support them. After Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Ricans learned to take climate resilience and disaster response into their own hands rather than waiting for official assistance. When infrastructure and services collapsed in September 2022, Puerto Ricans opened their homes and private land to create alternative routes for people who needed to access food, water, and essential health services. Robust external assistance can support these types of local initiatives. Mutual aid is critical to the survival of communities, and effective climate resilience planning should identify ways to support mutual aid and other local initiatives while also building better infrastructure and official governance systems and response structures.

Q4: How is the U.S. government responding to Fiona and what more can be done?

A4: The Biden administration has recognized previous natural disaster response failures and committed itself to supporting Puerto Rico. President Biden approved an emergency declaration prior to Fiona’s landfall, mobilizing FEMA to protect public health, property, and safety. In the wake of the storm, the administration provided $8 million of immediately available federal funds for emergency response and recovery efforts and increased Critical Needs Assistance allowance for individuals and families displaced by the disaster from $500 to $700. The U.S. Department of Transportation, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services were mobilized to provide emergency services and in-kind support to the territory, deploying more than 1,200 federal response workers on the ground.

Investments under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will support programs to weatherize structures and strengthen Puerto Rico's energy grid, supporting long-term climate resilience that will minimize the impact of future storms. The strengthening of transportation infrastructure should improve the efficacy of future disaster response interventions. On his October 3, 2022, visit to Puerto Rico, President Biden reaffirmed these commitments, announcing $60 million in federal funding to support coastal areas in Puerto Rico.

These investments mark a step forward in the U.S. government's recognition of the importance of investing in climate resilience. However, the poor outcomes of the 2017 response and the lasting socioeconomic insecurity of Puerto Rican citizens highlight the need to ensure that such commitments are combined with long-term investments in reconciling systemic obstacles to results. The superimposition of climate events on existing vulnerabilities exacerbates their macroeconomic and human cost for low-income communities. As such, true climate resilience will require not only stronger infrastructure and new technologies but also social and economic development investments to mitigate the vulnerability of communities and individuals to the devastation of severe climate events.

Jude Larnerd is a program manager and research associate with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sierra Ballard is a research assistant with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda. Jacob Kurtzer is the former director and senior fellow with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sierra Ballard

Sierra Ballard

Former Research Assistant, Humanitarian Agenda