How Likely Is Resilient Disaster Recovery in Puerto Rico?

A U.S. Army helicopter transports material to repair the Guajataca Dam, damaged during Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

A U.S. Army helicopter transports material to repair the Guajataca Dam, damaged during Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Ramon Espinosa / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

Unlike with other hurricanes, the Trump administration holds all the cards—a good or bad thing depending on how committed it is to preparing the U.S. territory for the next major storm.

Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria isn’t your typical disaster recovery scenario, and until the Trump administration indicates just how big a role it will play in rebuilding infrastructure, a timeline for recovery efforts remains elusive.

Louis Berger, a Morristown, New Jersey-based global professional services corporation, has been in the disaster recovery business since 9/11 and remains involved in Jersey Shore resilience efforts, five years after the area was essentially ground zero for Superstorm Sandy.

Hurricane Katrina-related recovery work remains ongoing 12 years after that storm struck, and in Louisiana too the focus is on resilience.

With Puerto Rico’s recovery the Trump administration may not see fit to seriously involve the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; include public-private partnerships; or invest in microgrids, power islands and other sustainable technologies that could prevent another hurricane-induced humanitarian crisis in the future.

“The federal government is the big source of rescue, not the territorial government in this case,” Tom Lewis, president of Louis Berger’s U.S. division, told Route Fifty by phone. “They have very few resources to rescue themselves.”

A rebuild committed to resilience would take five-plus years, he said, but New York and New Jersey had a lot going for them post-Superstorm Sandy that Puerto Rico does not.

Manhattan, like Puerto Rico, is an island but one accessible by tunnels and bridges and not just air and sea. Getting people and equipment to Puerto Rico and accessing lodging and communications is a lot harder.

Then there’s the fact both the Puerto Rican government and the territory’s largest utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, are both entangled in bankruptcy proceedings and financially constrained. New York and New Jersey had the bonding capacity to get money where it ran dry.

The regional economy in the Tri-State Area couldn’t endure prolonged stagnation, so local private industry and talent responded quickly. Puerto Rico doesn’t have that luxury because much of its homegrown talent leaves for the mainland U.S., where job opportunities are greater.

Add to that, Puerto Rico’s landfills sit largely full and the technology at those facilities as well as water treatment plants, Superfund sites and other brownfields isn’t fully modernized.

“When you don’t have a lot of resources as a governmental entity, your environment suffers, your infrastructure suffers, you start deferring maintenance,” Lewis said. “That makes you susceptible to disaster.”

In terms of relief, Puerto Rico still remains in the “response phase” ensuring public safety and the meeting of critical needs like water, sewer, power, communication, mobility, and trade.

Cell towers are starting to come back online, but over Columbus Day weekend Louis Berger shipped about 200 commercial power generators to be used until grids can be restored—a midterm phase likely to bleed into next year a month or two.

Louis Berger has built up on-call, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts with federal clients, and in an unusual move one, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, issued a task order mobilizing the corporation to deal with power outages ahead of Hurricane Irma in September.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a second task order shortly after the storm for Louis Berger to assess and repair its impacted facilities, and in the last week or two the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which must wait for authorization after a presidential emergency declaration, made a third for housing inspections.

Once the short-term response phase is finished, the long-term “recovery phase” led by FEMA will begin bringing action plans and the prioritization of projects.

Done right, P3s will be integrated into the process, insurance claims fielded, the Small Business Administration loan program utilized, assessments performed, and new NGOs and philanthropies engaged, Lewis said. Lowering long-term costs for the Puerto Rican government with sustainable tech and resilient infrastructure could prove transformative.

The earlier P3s are brought into the fold the better, but amid the response phase planning can seem an inconvenience. Still, the sooner tech providers and private financiers are included in the recovery conversation, even if the government doesn’t wind up using them, the more optionality Puerto Rico will have, Lewis said.

Intergovernmental cooperation, as well as communication with the private sector and NGOs, is improving in Puerto Rico, and that could make or break resilient recovery. Disaster politics could stymie it.

“We are optimistic that things are headed in the right direction,” Lewis said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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