Rising up – not blown away: re-building Puerto Rico from the ground up

Published on 26 October 2017

Maria Klara Kuss

IDS Alumni Ambassador

Puerto Rico has made international headlines after Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit the island on 20th September. A trail of destruction was left: snapped trees, destroyed houses, fallen power cables, blocked roads, and chest-deep floodwaters. Now, more than a month after the disaster, most Puerto Ricans still live without access to water, light and communication services. In a de facto colonial context where different governmental entities are trying to avoid taking up their responsibilities, bottom up movements are on the rise and provide much needed help, care and relief.

Puerto Rico Hurricane Damage

Photo credit: Amber Lee Vélez-Burr – Destroyed houses in the village Barrio Portuguez in the Municipality of Adjuntas.

‘A Free Associated State’

Puerto Rico has a unique political status which is formally described as a ‘Free Associated State’ to the United States (U.S.). The power imbalances of this relationship however define Puerto Rico as a de facto colony. Hence, ultimate control over any policy decision taken by the Puerto Rican government lies within the U.S. government. This very nature of the policy process has provided fertile grounds for both governments to engage in prolonged debates aimed at avoiding their responsibilities to provide goods and services to Puerto Ricans. Over the last weeks, we have witnessed once more how the characteristics of the policy process have resulted in a leadership crisis that have hindered an immediate, effective and strong provision of disaster assistance.

The fight to avoid the responsibility to provide top level disaster assistance

At least formally, Puerto Rico has been entitled to the same disaster assistance from the U.S. government as states within the USA. Under the Stafford Act, the main mandate for providing relief lies within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In practice however, the responsibility for providing disaster assistance to Puerto Ricans appears not clearly defined as indicated by the debates between the Puerto Rican and the U.S. government during the first month after the hurricane: The Puerto Rican government promoted a narrative that depicted the disaster as ‘dreadful’ and ‘catastrophic humanitarian crisis’ that because of its magnitude could not be handled by the Puerto Rican government. In contrast, the U.S. government promoted a narrative that depicted Puerto Ricans as ‘lazy’ and ‘dependent’. The narratives of both governments aimed to shift the responsibility away from themselves and towards the other and this lack of leadership has left Puerto Rico without an immediate, effective, and coordinated top-level disaster response.

The rise of bottom level disaster assistance

For Puerto Ricans, this governmental crisis is all but new. Instead of waiting for the governments to provide disaster assistance, people rely on their families, neighbours and community members for immediate help, support and care. For example, only hours after the winds have calmed down, Puerto Ricans began to mobilize themselves. People started to free roads from fallen trees, rubble, and broken windows; those with power generators gave extension cables to their neighbours, and those with running water connected hoses to reach the pavements where anyone in need could access them.

Now more than a month after the hurricane, more and more people have formed volunteer groups to organize and provide much needed goods to Puerto Ricans. These bottom level efforts are strongly supported by the Puerto Rican diaspora who facilitate the access to those goods unavailable on the island such as water filters, solar panels, mosquito nets, and torches among others. At the community level people’s relief efforts are supported by community leaders and community organizations who provide guidance in terms of where and what type of help is needed in their communities

Local people in Puerto Rico meet to discuss plans

Photo credit: Amber Lee Vélez-Burr. Alexis Massol, founding father of the community organisation Casa Pueblo explaining a volunteer group the route to a village that has not yet received any disaster assistance.

Some community organisations have thus become ‘local headquarter’ for the distribution of bottom-level relief efforts and play vital roles in coordinating and delivering relief. A showcase of such a ‘local headquarter’ is the community organisation Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas in the middle of the island. ‘Casa Pueblo’ is a longstanding and exceptionally well organised community organisation. With its strong roots in the community the organisation has become a first entrance and orientation point for any assistance coming to Adjuntas.

The organisation is also involved in the direct redistribution of relief to community members. Using their own radio station, Casa Pueblo is able to reach out to their community members and inform them about distribution times and goods available. Moreover, volunteer troops are sent out every morning in order to visit different areas in Adjuntas and bring water or other relief items to people’s houses. In order to guarantee fairness and accountability, it will be registered what help has been provided to whom.

Implications of the rise of bottom level disaster assistance

The case of Puerto Rican’s immediate disaster response shows the importance of community organisations and bottom-up support in providing immediate, effective and coordinated relief in a colonial context where top level governmental entities try to escape from their responsibilities. The fact that Puerto Ricans do not wait for the Puerto Rican or U.S. government to help them may suggest a severe distrust in the capacities of their government. It appears that Puerto Ricans are used to rely on each other for receiving help. Thus, an incredibly strong solidarity and support network exists among Puerto Ricans stretching from families, to neighbours, to the entire community, and even to the Puerto Rican diaspora. This has enabled an immediate disaster response from the bottom.

The existence of these social support networks should however not deny the responsibility of any government to provide public goods and services to their people especially in case of an emergency situation. In Puerto Rico top level relief efforts should thus concentrate on rebuilding fundamental public infrastructure including electricity, water and communication services. In order to provide top level relief that involve the distribution of items to individual households it will be crucial to involve community organizations and community leaders in order to be effective. They know best where and what type of assistance is needed in their communities.

Maria Klara Kuss is a PhD student in Public Policy and Policy Analysis at the United Nations University MERIT’s Graduate School of Governance in the Netherlands. Before starting her PhD, she worked as a Research Officer at the IDS. Maria Klara holds an MA in Governance and Development from the IDS (2013) and currently serves as IDS Alumni Ambassador for Germany.

Miguel A. Rivera-Quiñones is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Puerto Rico. Prior to this, he taught in the MA Governance and Development (2014) at the IDS and in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Miguel holds a PhD in International Relation and has worked as a consultant for several international organisations.

Further information and reading:

  • On the political status of Puerto Rico: Dietz, J. (1976). The Puerto Rican Political Economy. Latin American Perspectives, 3 (3), 3-16
  • On the community organisation ‘Casa Pueblo’: http://casapueblo.org/



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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