Building a climate-resilient Puerto Rico 'from scratch'

Building a climate-resilient Puerto Rico 'from scratch'
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“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” This well-known bit of wisdom from “The Art of War” — often cited by the type of marketing professionals President Trump celebrates — would serve the president well as he decides how to respond to Hurricane Maria.

Intelligent people can debate the extent to which climate change caused Hurricane Maria. What is not debatable is the unprecedented damage to the island of Puerto Rico caused by the hurricane, and the need to rebuild much of the island’s infrastructure, buildings and housing.


What is also no longer debatable is that sea levels are rising around the island and its shores are eroding. The rebuilding efforts that will be undertaken in the coming months and years in response to the hurricane present the opportunity to adapt to these undeniable effects of climate change. 


Because of the economic crisis already plaguing Puerto Rico and the approach to disaster relief in our country generally, much of the responsibility for that rebuilding will fall on the federal government — specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Congress provided $7.4 billion each to FEMA and HUD for disaster relief, including “restoration of infrastructure and housing ... in the most impacted and distressed areas.” Bureaucrats in these federal government agencies, at the direction of a president who is no stranger to large-scale construction projects, will decide what the new Puerto Rico, quite literally, looks like. As the president himself put it, “we’re literally starting from scratch.”

The effects of climate change on sea level rise and the resulting risks to Puerto Rico have been well documented. Based on data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (el Consejo de Cambio Climático de Puerto Rico), which is a federally-funded collaboration of researchers, planners, architects, practitioners, agency representatives and communications experts, has recommended planning for a sea level rise of 0.5-1.0 meters by 2100. The Council also observed, from U.S. Geological Survey data, that coastal erosion is causing a retreat of the coastline of up to one meter per year in some sectors of Puerto Rico. These and many other more detailed conclusions are available to general public, to the bureaucrats at FEMA and HUD — and to the president. 

If the billions of taxpayer dollars are to be spent effectively, rather than squandered, the president should draw on his development experience and direct these bureaucrats to accept the conclusions of more than 140 experts on the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council and rebuild the island to be more resilient to the effects of climate change.

But what does a more climate resilient Puerto Rico look like? Fortunately for the federal government, it has already funded much of the research necessary to answer that question.

Last year, the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council mapped out a “road to resilience” (Ruta hacia la Resiliencia), laying out in almost 200 pages detailed strategies to adapt Puerto Rico to climate change. These practical strategies sit alongside a vast array of cutting-edge innovative design solutions for climate change adaptation from the academic and professional community, including the president’s former advisor Elon Musk. The road to resilience is long and expensive, but, because of Maria, it must be rebuilt anyway.  

It would be the clichéd definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result) to rebuild Puerto Rico exactly as it was before Maria without giving any consideration to the documented and very real effects of climate change. Other island leaders impacteded by this terrible hurricane season have already recognized this. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica has secured World Bank and European Development Agency commitments to make Dominica the first “climate resilient nation.” President Trump and the leaders of Puerto Rico should follow his lead.

Not only would rebuilding Puerto Rico as a climate resilient territory improve the safety and welfare of its citizens, but it would provide a much-needed model for other climate threatened communities in the United States. Sea level rise poses a tremendous risk to communities across our nation — quite literally from California (Oakland) to the New York island (four of the five boroughs). 

Hurricane Maria has already devastated Puerto Rico. Let’s learn from that devastation, and adapt.

Anthony Moffa is a visiting associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. He writes and teaches in the fields of administrative law, criminal law, property law and international law, with a particular emphasis on the treatment of the environment.