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.

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