State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Building Resilience in Vieques, Puerto Rico

Note: This story was updated on 9/23/2019 with new information about the courses and instructors involved. 

design layouts
Snapshot from the “Hecho Para Vieques” proposal, which would use large-format 3D-printers and upcycled parts to build fast, affordable, resilient, and customizable structures for individuals and families. Image courtesy of James Samuel Piacentini

Two years ago today, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with winds as fast as 155 miles per hour. Heavy rains caused flooding and landslides. The storm destroyed homes and entire neighborhoods, knocked out electricity, and left people with limited food and water supplies for months. It is estimated that Hurricane Maria caused nearly 3,000 deaths. Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover to this day.

Given the extent of devastation, Richard Plunz from Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab (UDL) was asked to start a project lending his expertise toward helping the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques with the recovery process. Work began with the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust and with the help of Vilma Gallagher from the Earth Institute. They organized two design studio courses at Columbia’s Graduate School Architecture, Planning and Preservation, taught by Plunz and Jonathan Kirschenfeld in architecture (Fall 2018); and another in in architecture and urban planning taught by Plunz, Douglas Woodward and Ubaldo Escalante (Spring 2019). Both courses brought graduate students to visit the impacted communities, learn from local residents and community leaders, and present to them ideas for solutions.

Enlisting the help of Vilma Gallagher from the Earth Institute, the UDL brought graduate students to visit the impacted communities, learn from local residents and community leaders, and present to them ideas for solutions.

The resulting 14 project proposals, soon to be published in a report, reflect and build upon the knowledge of the Vieques community. What started out as a focus on housing and planning grew to encompass community-building, water access, health, transportation and more. To name a few examples, the proposals encompass rebuilding medical facilities; creating bicycle routes throughout the island; opening community gardens to grow food locally; strengthening local education and job skills; and repurposing waste into building materials. The group hopes to eventually make one or some of these proposals into reality.

The island of Vieques is home to 9,000 people and has a footprint of just 52 square miles. Yet it suffered many of the same setbacks of the main island after Hurricane Maria. To the Urban Design Lab, Vieques could be the perfect testbed for resilient infrastructure that changes the way people think about disaster response and recovery. Eventually, the tiny island could serve as a role model for the rest of Puerto Rico and other island communities.

In the following interview, Maria Paola Sutto, senior program manager in the Urban Design Lab, interviews Mark Martin-Bras, director of Community Relations & Field Research of the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust. Martin-Bras lectured the design students and provided feedback on their proposals; he was a key contributor to the project. He is also a founding member of Vieques Love, a group created in response to the disastrous events after Hurricane Maria.

After Hurricane Maria, many volunteer and not for profit organizations came and went in Vieques. Did they have any relevance in the immediacy of the situation?

Mark Martin-Bras
Mark Martin-Bras lecturing the students at the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust. Photo courtesy Urban Design Lab

After Hurricane Maria, many good people came to work and help out on the island. Many friends, volunteers, doctors, and not-for-profits had an essential role in addressing the aftermath of the hurricane. The experience has been touching and quite chaotic. Remember that we stayed for weeks without seeing anyone from the government agencies outside of Vieques; months with no light, electricity, water. Looking at the future, I see that for the many people coming to help, there is the need for better coordination in the relief efforts. The United States Coast Guard was the first US entity to provide us with essential assistance.

Volunteers need to be careful not to overlap or interfere with the work of the authorities. There can also be a darker side in the role of the not-for-profits, that is not so transparent. It is an aspect that is difficult to discuss so it is never brought to light.

That being said, if it wasn’t for the non-profits and the NGOs coming to the rescue of Vieques, there would have been a much sadder story.

With this said, how do you see the Columbia effort?

The Columbia University studio initiatives were good. The students were organized and informed, and they had a well-prepared approach. Starting from the spatial considerations, they envisioned wide-ranging solutions and were able to be flexible in their assumptions. After they came here and gained the real experience of the place and conditions, they modified and adjusted their approach. They didn’t come with the attitude that they knew what had to be done. We appreciated their rapid answers, especially from the most experienced of them — and the exciting propositions that gave new perspectives to the local community. These perspectives have helped the municipality and the group leaders to see their way forward.

After two years of struggle, what is needed now relative to a sustained recovery and next steps?

There is still the need for better coordination between local, state, and federal government. For the future, the diaspora and the academy whose roles have been relevant will have to learn to work more independently. They made a big effort and put a lot of time and money to help revive Vieques. We still need their help and we hope that these collaborations will continue in the future.

Among the immediate priorities to be addressed are:

  • Transportation (totally inadequate)
  • Health (totally inadequate care)
  • Energy (still not reliable in the present situation)
  • Water (the island doesn’t have a backup system)

In terms of rebuilding, money is important, but not the only component for success. In general, beyond the financial needs, which are the most important things to consider?

The first priority is to implement a sound strategy for disaster preparedness with careful staging; awareness of the location of all the community constituents starting with the rural community, the small islands community, the hard-to-reach-places in the community. In synthesis: enhance local knowledge with resources.

Another important priority is to focus a lot more on the essential response components to have in place, and to insist on fostering collaboration between people. Strong political will must be there. And definitively rewrite FEMA.

As of now, what worked in the Vieques recovery efforts?

The first noticeable post-Maria improvement is communication: pathways of Caribbean regional exchange have been opened and now, for example, we are able to communicate with the Virgin Islands, and we have a network of information that helps us to share experiences and be better prepared in adverse events. The community groups in Vieques are now a lot more aware of the things to do in case of emergency. We benefitted from private organizations equipped with innovative water and energy solutions.

What roles can outsiders play in advocating for a next phase of the Vieques development?

The thing most needed is advocacy at the political level: we are not able to represent ourselves properly. We also need advocacy for human rights issues. This month, there will be a group going to Washington D.C. led by the Hispanic Federation, a Latino nonprofit membership organization. It supports the Latino community in areas such as education, health, immigration, civic engagement, economic empowerment, and the environment.

You just had another “advisory” for Hurricane Dorian, luckily with no consequences for Puerto Rico. Given the increasing climate hazards, should another hurricane hit the island, what do you think is still lacking and what suggestions would you offer for disaster preparedness?

We need to better understand where the people are and what they need. For this there are basics — even like accelerating street naming, for example. A proper census and a systematic understanding of the localization of the more critical needs and the access to resources will save lives and provide an organized mechanism to channel resources and efficiently deliver help. There is no proper way to plan or prepare without understanding what the needs are and what went wrong in Maria. When Dorian came by, it was very disappointing to see the lack of supplies, staging and preparation, even with all the efforts and funds that have been invested. It was not only sad but also illogical to see the lack of preparation by the government entities that could reduce casualties and grief and lower the response-cost by preparing and adjusting to more resilient methods and strategies.

Disaster preparedness and resilience involve not only human possessions and structures but also the natural environment. What are the next-generation priorities for protecting these critical resources?

In the natural world preparedness means, for example, understanding that planting mangroves helps to attenuate natural phenomena. We need to persevere with reforestation and enhancing vegetation growth in between the hurricanes.

We also have to learn to take away the human obstructions as much as possible to allow the natural flow of the elements — from radically reducing the impact we are inflicting on the planet … to eliminating the cultural practices that make us build and follow a lifestyle in locales and situations that put humans and the natural systems in danger. In this we are not alone. The whole world must understand such priorities — of dramatically changing the way we live, eat, build, plan, drive and run industrial operations; of using renewables and waste management.

It is as Greta Thunberg says: “It’s time to panic like your house is on fire,” because it is. In disaster preparedness, not understanding this approach is assuring more frequent and devastating results. We are not analyzing for preparedness, considering the predicted rise in sea levels, flooding, fires, deteriorating natural areas and biodiversity conditions, frequency of storms, rapid loss of essential resources, and the financial and operations adjustment that must be made to deal with the climate change reality. Overall we better have a sound program for proceeding with early preparation and assessments before the next hurricane.

Our studies were geared not only toward analyzing the physical rebuilding of Vieques, but toward grasping opportunities to improve economic outcomes — and let’s admit it, at dreaming of a utopian Vieques. Of the proposed projects is there one that caught your attention?

Several projects come to mind. For example the “rangers” who could be a first response team using our ubiquitous island horses. Or the deployable structures made from renewable materials and used to augment educational activities. Of course, also important were the ideas related to building resilience, food security, and especially simple solutions for more robust homes. I think that the overall interest and value attributed to planning for Vieques in a changing world, and combined with a community integrated approach to academic and professional collaborations, has led to a much needed productive and creative planning assemblage between students and local stakeholders.

The work of the Urban Design Lab and the Columbia GSAPP studios has provided a positive example: it has been a cradle of interesting ideas for the community, very culturally sensitive, with the ability to be adjusted with the input of Vieques constituents. The process has been humble enough to accept diverse points of view. It seems to have been an unusual opportunity for everyone involved.

In a traditional university setting it seems that the conceptual processes are quite linear: ideas, funding, realization. In the real world, all of this is much more complicated.

In the end I think that, your initial proposals have served to sediment ideas given our need to create replicable models. Now it is not too late to look for financial outcomes and funding options. We have to call for a very straight-forward meeting where we don’t just discuss interesting ideas, but also simply put a price on the things we can actually do, and then we go for funding, and build something long lasting. Your work represents an effective beginning.

It is imperative that we assure the continuity of these projects by continuing the analysis while investing in the execution of some of the feasible, applicable projects. This already successful endeavor could become a demonstrative model of a virtuous exchange between inspiring academic projects and underserved communities facing disasters with the need to plan for climate change and socially just development.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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