Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation: An Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico


It has been almost a year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but the Island’s recovery is far from over. The Government of Puerto Rico proposes a transformational plan that will help the Island recover from the hurricanes, become more resilient to future disasters, and turn around the economic decline that Puerto Rico has been struggling with for more than a decade. To achieve this ambitious vision, the Government of Puerto Rico will seek out $139 billion in funding—from the federal government, foundations and other nonprofits, and Puerto Rico’s own budget—to invest in a robust and resilient future.

This economic and disaster recovery plan lays out the Government of Puerto Rico’s strategic vision and goals and provides a detailed framework for achieving them.

Catastrophic disaster

In September 2017, Puerto Rico suffered catastrophic damage as Hurricane Irma passed just north of San Juan. Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the Island two weeks later. The hurricanes’ effects on people’s health and safety were devastating. Damage to critical infrastructure resulted in cascading failures of the lifeline systems of energy, telecommunications, water, and transportation. Because the disaster occurred at the end of a very active hurricane season, federal resources for disaster response were stretched.

In addition, aid from other states was not readily available due to a lack of mutual assistance compacts and the geographical separation of more than 1,000 miles between Puerto Rico and the continental United States. Given the scale of the disaster, the limited response resources, and the failure of lifeline systems, emergency services were severely compromised and residents lacked electricity, food, and water for a prolonged period. And with roads impassable, residents had limited access to medical care. After the hurricanes, people lost their jobs, schools were closed, government services and private enterprise could no longer operate effectively, landslides caused flooding hazards, and wastewater polluted marine environments. While the hurricanes touched virtually every segment of the population, older adults, children, individuals with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and women were disproportionately affected by this disaster.

Catastrophic hurricanes and the resulting disasters are not unique to Puerto Rico. Coastal communities affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also suffered widespread damage, severe interruption of essential services, and deep economic losses. Lessons learned from these past disasters suggest that the Island now faces a lengthy recovery. Although Puerto Rico has been working to restore services, reopen schools and other public buildings, and help residents return to normal life since the 2017 hurricane season, much work remains to be done.

Critically, Puerto Rico has been grappling with preexisting conditions that exacerbated the impact of the hurricanes, including an economic crisis spanning more than a decade and structural, demographic, health, social, and infrastructure stresses; in addition, it has been responding to demands for improved government transparency. Efforts to address these challenges—including Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s Plan for Puerto Rico; the New Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico: Restoring Growth and Prosperity, which was certified by the Financial Oversight and Management Board; and the CDBG-DR Action Plan approved on July 30, 2018—are foundational documents that outline the Governor’s vision for Puerto Rico. His vision for transforming Puerto Rico for the future is grounded in the present, taking into account a variety of preexisting factors that will continue to challenge the Island and its citizens in the years ahead. These include Puerto Rico’s location and geography, changing demographics, the economic trends and fiscal conditions prior to the hurricanes, and the limited maintenance of critical infrastructure. This recovery effort represents more than simply the effort to physically repair and reconstruct the damage caused to the Island by the hurricanes; it is also an opportunity to implement the social, governmental, fiscal, and economic reforms that will lead to a 21st-century Puerto Rico.