Cover: Community Planning and Capacity Building in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

Community Planning and Capacity Building in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

Predisaster Conditions, Hurricane Damage, and Courses of Action

Published Sep 30, 2020

by Vivian L. Towe, Elizabeth L. Petrun Sayers, Edward W. Chan, Alice Y. Kim, Ashlyn Tom, Wing Yi Chan, Jefferson P. Marquis, Michael W. Robbins, Lisa Saum-Manning, Margaret M. Weden, et al.


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Research Questions

  1. What were the conditions of Puerto Rico's communities before the hurricanes?
  2. How are communities across different levels of social vulnerability affected differently by the hurricanes?
  3. What would help improve Puerto Rico's capacity to engage in community-based planning for emergency preparedness and for recovery?

The government of Puerto Rico developed a plan to recover from the destruction caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, build resilience to withstand future disasters, and restore the struggling economy. The Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), operated by RAND Corporation under contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist with the development of the plan.

Acting in support of FEMA's Community Planning and Capacity Building (CPCB) sector, HSOAC conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups with municipalities, government leaders, subject-matter experts (with expertise in law enforcement, emergency management, community planning, etc.), nonprofits, and community residents, among others, to provide critical community context for CPCB efforts. HSOAC also used multiple data sources to estimate the outmigration of residents who in the wake of the hurricane moved out of their communities to the continental United States.

The authors describe the status of Puerto Rico's communities in terms of population characteristics and dynamics, community and individual preparedness, and economic pressures leading up to the landfalls of the hurricanes. They also report on the impact that the hurricanes had on Puerto Rico's communities in terms of damage, community stress, and migration away from the island. These analyses and discussions informed the development of 15 courses of action (COAs) aimed at improving Puerto Rico's capacity for emergency preparedness, coordination, communication, recovery planning, and research and training, to meet the needs of Puerto Rico and its vulnerable communities during a disaster.

Key Findings

Several preexisting social and economic issues subsequently affected timely recovery and response and created conditions where residents were especially vulnerable to the hurricane's impact

  • Puerto Rico's residents described a varied level of preparedness among themselves and other community members as Hurricane Maria approached.
  • Many preexisting community-level stressors affected Puerto Rico's response and recovery efforts, including foundational issues and sources of chronic stress.
  • Among the foundational issues, current and former residents reported (1) poor infrastructure, (2) a fragile economy, (3) poor governance/government corruption, (4) inequality, and (5) lacking a sense of community.
  • Chronic stressors—including (1) the lack of an emergency preparedness/response system, (2) misinformation, and (3) outmigration to the continental United States—were related to the aforementioned foundational issues and likely to have also affected preparedness at the individual level.

The pattern of damage from the disaster substantially overlaps the distribution of social vulnerability, as opposed to the path of the hurricane

  • The most socioeconomically disadvantaged municipalities sustained the most damage, while the municipalities with the most socioeconomic advantage experienced the least damage.
  • Six months after Hurricane Maria's landfall, most residents interviewed in Puerto Rico were still focused on near-term survival.
  • Puerto Rico residents saw government as most important in response and recovery efforts, but their comments were more favorably disposed toward nongovernmental organization (NGO) and local community-based activities.
  • Most Puerto Ricans relied on faith-based organizations, NGOs, community, family, and individuals (including community leaders) for information on posthurricane news.
  • Residents shared an overwhelming amount of distrust for local and federal government agencies.


  • Build a disaster-related data analysis and decision support capability to support disaster preparedness and hazard-mitigation activities.
  • Focus on community-level capacity building for preparedness and response.
  • Enhance Puerto Rico's hazard-mitigation assessment, monitoring, and evaluation enterprise.
  • Hire planners to develop and implement disaster resilience plans in collaboration with 50–100 selected communities.
  • Establish a Center of Excellence for Disaster Preparedness and Recovery at a university in Puerto Rico.
  • Build a Public Information and Communication capability to facilitate the continued engagement of Puerto Rican communities in the recovery process.
  • Conduct an assessment and develop a shelter plan that includes a comprehensive and strategic approach to sheltering across Puerto Rico.
  • Establish a Municipal Emergency Management Office in municipalities where one does not exist.
  • Establish a process by which municipalities severely affected by the hurricanes develop their respective recovery and reconstruction plans in a coordinated way.
  • Fund a design competition that fosters innovative solutions for risk reduction.
  • Ensure coordination and development across sectors, and work to ensure that major infrastructure projects are implemented in a thoughtful manner.
  • Conduct a study to reevaluate the current state of Puerto Rico's grant management processes and workforce.
  • Organize a three-day conference in Puerto Rico that convenes chief acquisition officers, contract officers, and other procurement experts involved in rebuilding after the hurricanes.
  • Establish a set of 100 scholarships annually, for five years, to train municipal government workers and local NGO staff in grant writing.
  • Strengthen local nonprofit and NGO involvement in disaster recovery to maximize their contributions as recovery partners.

This research was sponsored by FEMA and conducted within the Strategy, Policy and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.