Ports, Supply Chains, and Recovery

A blog post by Lily Bui, PhD candidate at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning

Puerto Rico means “rich port” in Spanish. The island’s name itself refers to one of its most important assets: its ports. Both air and sea ports in Puerto Rico are key entry and exit points for the flow of goods, people, and information.

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Puerto Rico’s ports were severely damaged by the winds and storm surge, congesting critical supply chains that the island would otherwise depend on for relief supplies like food, water, generators, people, and more. For long-term recovery, Puerto Rico’s dependence upon imports for its economic survival makes it extremely vulnerable to port closures.

Our practicum course was able to visit the risk management team for Crowley (http://crowley.com/), the largest shipping company on the island. Owning 46% of the market share, Crowley imports and exports a range of cargo – from food to cars to construction materials. The company was one of the first to restore shipping services after Hurricane Maria and was one of FEMA’s partners for coordinating the delivery of aid to the island.

Cargo means lives saved. This was the ethos of the company during the hurricane response, and it has since then reflected deeply on its lessons learned from Hurricane Maria. Some of the lessons that the team shared with us, among others, were as follows:

  • Take care of personnel first. About 60% of Crowley’s staff showed up to work a day after Hurricane Maria hit, and about 90% had shown up by the second day. The company provided food, water, shelter, electricity, and laundry services to employees and their family. This provided a space for boosting morale and simultaneously boosted economic production after the storm.
  • Invest in more preparedness activities before hurricane season, such as a dedicated Hurricane Preparedness Month. Every meeting at Crowley’s risk management team also starts with a “safety moment” in which employees are able to point out safety practices that could be improved.
  • Plan ahead to pre-stage food, water, and emergency supplies at their terminal before expected storms.
  • Coordinate and build relationships with their customers, NGOs, and governments during non-disaster periods.
  • Pursue microgrid technology as a means of backup power for the shipping terminal. The power outages across the entire island surprised most of the population, but it was most crippling for businesses that relied on power to operate. Microgrid technology – or similar alternatives – may assist with shipping companies’ ability to bounce back more quickly.

Islands suffer the tyranny of distance when it comes to supply chains. Because of their isolation from their continental counterparts, islands rely heavily on companies like Crowley for recovery, and essentially for their livelihoods. At day’s end, the recovery of supply chains leads to the recovery of an island’s economy, its people’s livelihood, and its overall resilience.

Featured Image: Crowley containers in the San Juan terminal shipping yard.

From Community to Federal Government: A Closer Look at Coastal Areas in Puerto Rico

What will your planning recommendation be? Professor Maritza Barreto, a coastal geologist, started us of with this challenge.  There’s only one road to Loiza – Route 187 – and after seasonal swells people aren’t able to get in and out of the area because it gets damaged, flooded and covered by sand.  Hurricane Maria exacerbated the situation. A field trip with her guidance fueled our imagination by clearly pointing out the coastal risks that have been impacting access. Our first stop was a municipal beach near the entrance to Loiza.

At this stop, we learned how sand movement impacted planning options. It was clear that we needed to understand this phenomenon deeper.

Our second stop was at Kioskos where we sensed how sand movement that covered Route 187 also meant loss to small businesses.

The third stop was by a school which dramatized how critical infrastructure are impacted when there is no access to Route 187.

The fourth stop illustrated, among others, how road design could trap salt water and threaten the health of mangrove forest.

The final stop was in Juarez where erosion has already destroyed a road, a park and threatened beachfront homes.

It was clear from our questions that we were considering a few options (seasonal route, retreat etc). We ended up picking up ideas about community empowerment that planners can add to their tools. The local planning school engaged residents to become citizen scientists who know more about sand. We also reaffirmed that disaster response protocol and community leadership can make a difference. We were reminded that, as planners, we have to also think about the informal sectors, justice, and more.

After the Loiza tour, we were invited to the FEMA Joint Recovery Office in Puerto Rico (PR). FEMA officials were gracious enough to share time and information about the ongoing recovery operations. It was interesting to learn that for the first time, they are taking a ‘sector/system approach’ of recovery instead of an organizational approach. Each sector (EX: infrastructure, utilities) includes an entire range of FEMA operations to guide response/recovery. The purpose of this approach is to involve and entrust PR’s sectors to identify recovery needs, strategies, and plans. Meeting with FEMA informed us that FEMA is extremely interested in partnering with university students to develop case studies and thesis work.


UH Urban Planning Practicum: Learning from Maria

            This summer, a team of graduate students from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii travel to Puerto Rico to study the recovery from Hurricane Maria in order to identify important lessons for Hawaii and other island communities.  Led by Professor Karl Kim and assisted by Rob Porro of NDPTC and Lily Bui who is a Ph.D. candidate in planning from MIT, the class is a requirement for the Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and involves teamwork, conducting research, applying planning knowledge, skills, and values and developing a professional planning study for a client.  This year’s client is the City and County of Honolulu, Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency and the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center (NDPTC).  Matt Gonser who works for the City and County of Honolulu has accompanied the team to foster connections between San Juan and Honolulu. The purpose of this project is to understand and support efforts to enhance disaster recovery with an emphasis on community planning, geospatial analysis, and community capacity building.  The efforts are linked to NDPTC’s course development initiatives which are focused on training first responders, emergency managers, and community members engaged in building resilient communities.  NDPTC, a national center housed at the University of Hawaii (ndptc.hawaii.edu) and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has delivered training to more than 35,000 people in 350 communities across the country.

            Puerto Rico shares many similarities with Hawaii.  In addition to being an island community, it is exposed to many of the same coastal hazards including hurricanes, flooding, storm surge, erosion, sea level rise, landslides, and climate change.  As such, the research trip provides an opportunity to compare approaches to measuring and modeling environmental change, policy responses, and lessons related to disaster recovery.  According to Professor Kim, “the challenges of disaster recovery, in island communities, are especially great and we need to work together to understand, learn, and foster preparedness and strengthen capabilities to plan, rebuild, and enhance resilience.”

            In addition to participating in training courses on disaster recovery offered by NDPTC and a course on green infrastructure given by NOAA, the students met with key stakeholders from Federal, Territorial, local agencies as well as from universities, NGOs, and community organizations involved in the response and recovery in Puerto Rico.  The team also visited FEMA’s Joint Field Office (JFO) which recently transitioned to the Joint Recovery Office (JRO). Working closely with the University of Puerto Rico’s planning program in San Juan and the Sea Grant Program in Mayaguez, the team also visited areas impacted by the storm in order to learn about the damages, hazards, changes in the natural and built environments, and efforts to rebuild and recover from the hurricane.

            Valuable lessons regarding the importance of planning and recovery will not just serve students in their professional development, but also help to contribute to the development of policies and programs for building resilience in our communities.