Hurricane Recovery Lessons

Hurricane Recovery Lessons

The Summer and Fall of 2018 have been full of headlines on natural disasters: wildfires in California, record-setting hurricanes and super-typhoons in both the Atlantic and Pacific. All indications are that we can expect more of all of this in the future, as a number of climate change forecasts have underlined in the past month. Among their many effects, these natural disasters have a big impact on infrastructure. Being ready for when disaster hits will become a much bigger part of the job for infrastructure planners in coming decades. In this post, Infrastructure Ideas looks at some recovery lessons centered on Hurricane Maria.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria came ashore in Puerto Rico. A Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit the US Island territory in 80 years. It also arrived only two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed just north of the island, already causing substantial damage. After Maria, Thousands died, 100% of the island lost electricity, and clean water, health care and food became very scarce. After two months, less than half of the island had its electricity restored, and for some it has yet to be put back in place. In the next year 200,000 people, or almost 7% of the island’s population, left Puerto Rico for the US mainland.

Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the Atlantic, Super-Typhoon Mangkhut in the Pacific, as well as the July 2018 mudslide-causing rains over Japan have all been major casualty and damage producers in the twelve months since Maria devastated Puerto Rico. 2019 and beyond will certainly bring more such storms. How can countries or regions plan ahead to mitigate some of the risks to life and property associated with these disasters? The last year in Puerto Rico brings some valuable insights, especially in the area of infrastructure.

While some aspects of the recovery in Puerto Rico have been highly publicized and visible (Chef Jose Andres bringing in planeloads of food supplies), or politicized (comments that the death toll was as low as a few dozen people, or how effective the US Government’s efforts were), some less visible infrastructure recovery efforts in Puerto Rico contain useful factual lessons for those planning for potential similar disasters in other locations. In particular, Puerto Rico’s experience highlights important aspects of resiliency strategies for electricity systems.

For followers of the growing importance of renewable energy and electricity storage across the world, it will come as no surprise that utilizing these new technologies is central to hurricane-affected Puerto Rico’s resiliency plans. Key elements of interest include:

• Installation to date of over 10,000 solar and storage systems for health and other important local facilities: hospitals, medical clinics, schools, community centers, residential neighborhoods, and local businesses. As a result of this effort, the island territory now has a larger number of solar-plus-storage systems in place than any state on the US mainland.
• Beyond the existing installations, the draft “Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Action Plan” calls for a $400 million incentive program for more solar-plus-storage systems, along with resilient water systems, for lower-income households and neighborhoods.
• The same Disaster Recovery Action Plan calls for a $75m program for “Community Resilience Centers”. This would support the building or rebuilding of areas which would serve both as year-round community centers and as emergency safety gathering points.
• And the Plan also calls for a $100 million revolving loan fund which would be available for infrastructure contractors facing credit risks from a natural disaster. This revolving fund could be used to provide liquidity in a crisis to companies which have the skills and assets to help recovery, but which in practice find themselves unable to respond because of the impact of the disaster on their financial condition. This has the positive aspects of using public funds to leverage private-sector capabilities and assets, and using potentially external aid to leverage local resources, rather than waiting for what is in many places a distant and slow-moving government to undertake a complex recovery program on its own.

All of these aspects of Puerto Rico’s post-Maria reconstruction and resiliency planning are of use to islands and coastal areas potentially affected by hurricanes and other major storms. There are a host of other lessons being drawn from these hurricanes, including the importance of response speed, the role of mobile-phone message alerts, how long housing recovery takes, and of course that resiliency-focused planning dramatically reduces losses.

The frequency and intensity of such storms has been visibly growing over the past decade, and is widely forecast to keep increasing as climate change advances. Sound infrastructure planning can have a major positive impact on post-disaster health services, commercial and residential recovery, and human and economic losses. This kind of “Climate Adaptation” financing can be expected to loom larger in infrastructure budgets as time goes by. And we can expect that current themes in infrastructure finance, including how to better leverage private sector capital and capabilities, will play a large role in climate adaptation.

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