Cover: Municipalities on the Front Lines of Puerto Rico's Recovery

Municipalities on the Front Lines of Puerto Rico's Recovery

Assessing Damage, Needs, and Opportunities for Recovery After Hurricane Maria

Published Sep 30, 2020

by Blas Nunez-Neto, Andrew Lauland, Jair Aguirre, Gabriela Castro, Italo A. Gutierrez, Marielena Lara, Etienne Rosas, Beverly A. Weidmer


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Research Questions

  1. How did Hurricanes Irma and Maria affect Puerto Rico's municipalities in terms of how the municipalities govern, their financial situations, and the services they deliver?
  2. What can be done to improve municipalities' capacity and their ability deliver services and participate in reconstruction projects?
  3. Which municipalities are recovering most quickly?

To fulfill Congress's requirement for an economic and disaster-recovery plan for Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a team from the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center conducted an analysis for the government of Puerto Rico and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The team assessed the hurricanes' effect on Puerto Rico's municipalities and the municipalities' ability to govern, deliver services, and recover from the damage they incurred.

To address information gaps in Puerto Rico, the team surveyed officials from all 78 municipal governments, conducted 12 regional roundtables with municipal officials, collected and analyzed available municipal-level data, and consulted with subject-matter experts. The team's analysis shows that municipal governments faced the hurricanes while dealing with severe fiscal constraints caused by declining income — something that complicated response and recovery efforts.

FEMA data revealed that the most–heavily affected municipalities were clustered in the southeast coast of the main island, where Maria made landfall, and the central mountainous region, where the rugged terrain exacerbated the hurricane's effects. The team created a framework to evaluate the rate at which different municipalities are recovering, which revealed that the most–heavily damaged municipalities are generally also the ones recovering most slowly.

Finally, working with the government of Puerto Rico and FEMA, the team developed a set of courses of action (COAs) for recovery aimed at improving municipalities' capacity to govern and deliver key services. These COAs focus on improving municipal fiscal conditions, implementing regional approaches to service delivery and planning, rebuilding urban centers, increasing transparency, and enhancing municipal capacity.

Key Findings

The hardest-hit municipalities continue to lag behind the others

  • A year after the hurricanes, the municipalities that were hit the hardest by the hurricanes continued to lag behind their peers across a wide range of indicators, even accounting for their status before the hurricanes.

Municipal finances complicate recovery

  • Municipal revenue and budgets have been declining since 2009, leaving local governments in Puerto Rico without the necessary fiscal cushion to finance up-front costs related to response and reconstruction. The municipal budget crunch has affected Puerto Rico's ability to recover from the hurricanes.

Other long-standing issues exacerbated damage and hinder recovery

  • Municipalities' ability to respond and recover were adversely affected by a range of governance and capacity issues that have existed for many years in Puerto Rico — including a lack of transparency, capacity issues related to municipal staffing and lack of on-staff expertise in key areas, and the absence of regional entities capable of coordinating key activities across municipalities.


  • Improve municipal fiscal conditions. Implement strategies to improve municipal fiscal conditions and its ability to withstand financial challenges.
  • Implement regional approaches to service delivery and planning. Regional structures and approaches to service delivery and planning could enhance the delivery of key services and ensure that planning is coordinated across Puerto Rico.
  • Rebuild urban centers. Restore and repopulate them by incentivizing people to move there from suburban and rural areas, including by building affordable housing, improving transportation and lighting in public areas, providing internet access, and attracting business and commerce to urban centers.
  • Increase transparency. Provide constituents with easy access to key information about how municipalities operate and fund themselves.
  • Enhance municipal capacity. Provide municipal governments with technical guidance, best practices, and proven solutions.

This research was sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and conducted by the Strategy, Policy and Operations Program within 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.