Resilience Roundtable: Ivis Garcia Zambrana, AICP, PhD

About This Episode

Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. Maria, the more destructive of the two, devastated the island in myriad ways. It wiped out Puerto Rico's electrical grid, leaving 3 million people without power — the biggest outage in U.S. history. It caused $100 billion in damage, and recent estimates from Harvard University, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, put the number of fatalities at 2,975.

After the disaster, Professor Ivis Garcia Zambrana, AICP, PhD, went back to the island she grew up on to help create long-term planning partnerships that would lead to a more resilient Puerto Rico. In this episode of Resilience Roundtable, she sits down with host Jim Schwab, FAICP, to provide a context for how vulnerable Puerto Rico was before the storms: its government was more than $70 billion in debt and its failing electrical grid was already causing blackouts. Garcia Zambrana details the aftermath of the storm, but she also tells Schwab about the planning work that happened — and continues to happen — post-Maria. Several plans were culled into one, and a fiscal plan was put together. The two planners discuss the positive developments happening on the ground, such as how the community resilience program strengthens towns by granting funds to local planning organizations, but also where work still needs to be done to get into step with the new economic and disaster recovery plan. Their nuanced discussion paints a portrait of a complex situation: one in which great strides in rebuilding and recovery have been made, but great strides in hazard mitigation still need to happen.

Episode Transcript


Jim Schwab, FAICP: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that looks at how different communities prepared for and responded to natural hazards, such as floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. How have planners in these communities promoted resilience in their hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning? We’ll find out, on this episode of Resilience Roundtable, brought to you in conjunction with the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division. I’m your host, Jim Schwab, FAICP. I’m chair-elect of APA’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division.

This particular session we're going to be discussing Hurricane Maria and the recovery in Puerto Rico. And we will be speaking with Ivis Garcia Zambrana, who is an assistant professor in city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. She has spent time as a professional planner in Albuquerque; in San Francisco; Springfield, Missouri; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago, where she was cochair of the city's largest Puerto Rican organization, the Puerto Rican Agenda. Dr. Garcia also facilitates Planners for Puerto Rico, a group of academic and practitioner planners from ACSP, APA, FEMA, Centro UPR, and Society for Puerto Rican Planners, among others that are collaborating in recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. She was elected a board member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, which is a nonpartisan alliance to address Puerto Rico's humanitarian crisis and promote Puerto Rican political and civic participation in the United States. She earned her PhD in urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She holds dual master's degrees from the University of New Mexico in community and regional planning and Latin American studies, and a bachelor's in environmental science from Inter American University in Puerto Rico. So welcome, Ivis.

Ivis Garcia Zambrana, AICP, PhD: Thank you, Jim.

Jim: Let's get started. Professor Garcia, please tell us a bit about your entry into and background in urban planning and how that has led to your involvement in a disaster recovery underway in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and — what, what is ... Maybe you could explain a little about your prior Puerto Rican connections.

Ivis: So I'm originally from San Germán, Puerto Rico, which is a small town of 30,000 people in the west side of the island. And I actually went to Inter American University, just five minutes walking from my home. And I didn't know anything about planning, so — but I had an uncle in New Mexico, and I decided to come to the United States. I started to work [on] an APA project and other environmental projects, and I learned a little bit about planning. And this is how I decide to pursue a career in planning at the University of New Mexico. So I — when I went back to Puerto Rico for a year after Hurricane Maria, I actually just returned in July to the University of Utah. I didn't have any prior planning experience in my own island, so I had to learn a lot and create a lot of partnerships. I think that I found some interesting parallels between planning in the United States and Latin America. So it's like very different in Puerto Rico in terms of informality, in terms of like how data is managed, bureaucracy. There's many faces that are different. So for me, though I was learning about planning in Puerto Rico when I went — and I didn't have any previous experience with disaster planning. So I was like very nervous at first because again, for, for me and for a lot of planners in Puerto Rico, this was like completely new. Just like the framework of recovery, just like federal assistance. Absolutely everything was new. A thing that planner and [my] academic friend Robert Olshanky said, is that, well, you know, like, planning or — disaster planning is just like planning. Just like in, in a different scenario. So you just have to like learn the framework and you, you will do it. And this is actually like a great opportunity — as another planner, William Siembieda, was saying — for planners in Puerto Rico to gain the capacity that they needed to learn about disaster planning and make the island more resilient in the future.

Jim: You know, actually I'm going to diverge a second. Professor Olshansky is known, among other things, for coauthoring an article about time compression in planning. So when he says that disaster planning is like planning, what he also needs to add — and he probably did — is, but you do it in a much shorter time span —

Ivis: Yes.

Jim: — because of the time pressures.

Ivis: And there's a lot of deadlines as well. Definitely. I think that that's one of the main differences, that things are moving — it's fast and slow, I will say, in a way. Because everybody's waiting for the next plan and for the next step. Everybody's like preparing for [it and] all of a sudden it's there, and all the community participation needs to happen and all the conversations, right? So it's a very interesting way of like looking and experiencing planning because it feels like it goes fast and slow at times. But definitely I will say faster.

Jim: So it sounds like the old Army slogan, "Hurry up and wait."

Ivis: Yes.

Jim: So what are you doing currently in connection with recovery planning in Puerto Rico?

Ivis: I can tell you first of what I did when I was in Puerto Rico, and then I can tell you what I am currently doing. So I ended up going to Puerto Rico just because I felt I needed to. And I was, as I said, I was an assistant professor at the University of Utah. And I was like trying to find out how I can go back to the island, because it was very hard personally. I could not like — other Puerto Ricans [couldn't] communicate with like anyone for like almost two weeks, and you [had] to hear that your family is OK through other means. In my case, it was like through like Facebook and friends of friends, because again, there was no communication and there was like no electricity. So during, that time, I was trying to figure out — you know, I need to do something. I applied for a grant so I could go to Puerto Rico for an entire year instead of like teaching my regular classes at the University of Utah and creating some like longterm partnerships. So that was like my goal. So I started like, even before going to Puerto Rico, to connect with other planners and through the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, ACSP, there was a conference and a lot of us started to have these phone calls, which actually like emerged into what is today Planners for Puerto Rico, which is a group of like ACSP members. Also like David Rouse, who was like the previous director of research here at the American Planning Association, he was at that meeting, and the APA became involved as well as like Shannon Burke, other people from like FEMA, the University of Puerto Rico. So we were having these like phone calls about doing some kind of like collaboration. And mostly it evolved into like us being informed about what was happening and supporting the work of different organizations that were going to Puerto Rico. So there was like a lot of schools — like, for example, Georgia Tech — that went down there, as well as the University of Utah. And CUNY. Just different universities to do planning work with, with students. The APA supported a lot of that work. For example, they gave a grant to Georgia Tech to do some planning work with the Caño Martín Peña. And Caño Martín Peña is one — it's an organization that is the staple of community organizing. The U.N. has highlighted [it] as like one of the best organizations, because they have dealt with a lot of informality, and in a participatory way they have been able to create a land trust. And a lot of people actually were like — about 700 families, or 700 people, I will say, and some families are within there — they actually had to leave Caño Martín Peña, because where they live, there's a lot of flooding. So Georgia Tech, it was like involved in that. Also in — through the University of Puerto Rico, the APA supported a grant in Naguabo, which is a small town in Puerto Rico. A lot of the small towns and rural towns have not received a lot of assistance, I will say. And one of the issues is that actually the majority of planners in Puerto Rico, 80 percent are in San Juan and not in the smaller towns like Naguabo. So one of the initiatives with APA was to do a planning project with community leaders in, in, in Naguabo. And part of what I am doing is keeping some of those partnerships that started during that time, with the University of Puerto Rico and with different municipalities. This coming summer, I'm actually taking my students again from the University of Utah to a town that they visited previously, which is the town of Comerío. Comerío is a small town, and they're very low income. It was very much affected because they are along a river. It's called La Plata. And there's, there was a lot of flooding there, and it is estimated that 300 families could relocate. It doesn't mean that they want to relocate, but there's the opportunity for them to relocate. So the work that we are going to do is actually do a survey with people to see which people want to move. And then the — there's a piece of land that the municipality has identified as a place that is safe, and some housing could be built there. And there's a developer actually from Chicago. As I — as you mentioned before, I was the cochair of the Puerto Rican Agenda here in Chicago. And Hispanic Housing Development Corporation is an organization that develops a large percentage of like, of the homes that are in Latino communities here in Chicago. So the idea is that they will put a bid for this land in Comerío and — to develop housing for the people that need to be relocated. And so, what we wanted to start is also the planning process of having the conversation of the site development, like what people would like to see there, and just thinking — having that planning process, that it doesn't happen very often. Because, like, I think that in the United States, and I will extend that to Puerto Rico, people individually, they can choose to move, right, to a place. They might be given a voucher, or there might be some connection with a developer so they can move to a place, but usually it's not done communally. And that's like part of the idea, like how we can actually bring people together and have conversations about the future place that they want to move [to]. So that's like, one of, one of — a sample of one of the projects that will continue for, for several years, actually.

Jim: OK. And the APA grants you were referring to, I presume are part of that series of disaster recovery grants from the APA Foundation?

Ivis: Yes, that's correct.

Jim: Because I think it's important to bring that out just so that people who are donating to the foundation understand the kind of work that their money is supporting. You know, people have heard a lot about conditions in Puerto Rico before and after the disaster. And as a planner who has been working there, with the planner's eye to details like housing and transportation and infrastructure, can you offer your own description of both the situation before the storm hit in 2017 and how those storms affect planning to rebuild after the disaster?

Ivis: So when we think about Puerto Rico before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, you have to look at that in a scenario in where there was already a lot of disinvestment in the island. A lot of people point to the electrical grid. So about like 80 percent of like all the cables actually like dropped on the ground. And that is an amazing —

Jim: Yeah.

Ivis: — statistic. And when you take into account that the infrastructure was very, very old, and there has not been, like, most of it has not been updated for like 50 or 60 years, then you have like a system that is very fragile. Something that a lot of people didn't know is that there was actually three blackouts for several days the summer before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. And so, so this was like, it could be that you do not have power. And actually after the, there was like electricity up in, for example, San Juan, when I was living there. There was a couple times that somebody was fixing a tower and they hit it. And then there was no power for several days. So I think that a lot of people will point to the debt crisis that Puerto Rico had. So Puerto Rico actually had been suffering from deindustrialization. Things like NAFTA. And so a lot of companies have been leaving, which means that the government took a lot of loans to be able to like pay their debts, and the — PREPA, which is like the electrical company in Puerto Rico, actually had like 10 percent of the debt of like $72 billion. And one of the issues is that the majority of those funds were not actually going to rebuild the grid, but they were going to not fire people and to pensions and to just to keep the organization going. So when you, you put all those things together, it's like anyone would have expected that Category 5 Irma and Category 4 Maria hurricane would have a disastrous effect in the electrical grid. And a lot of towns where the majority of rural areas, like, for example, in Comerío, they were without electricity for like six months, and in some places it was like up to a year. And electricity also works with like the — with water. So a lot of people, like in Comerío, because they didn't have electricity, they could not pump the water so they didn't have water either. So in terms of the infrastructure, these major problems that you can also see translated into bridges not having any investments for a lot of years. So there's many things that could have been mitigated. Like, again, going back to Comerío, there's a lot of like homes that are around Río La Plata, and there was the infrastructure to actually like build an appropriate wall on the infrastructure. Then those homes wouldn't have been flooded. But the — one of the main issues is that there was not the funding to, to do that. So that's just like some, some of the examples of how — what we would call preconditions, right, or pre-existing conditions in, in Puerto Rico that really led to a major disaster. And that — to a sense, it's like a human disaster from, from that perspective, from deferred maintenance.

Jim: Sure. One of the things that's happened since the disaster obviously is — as in any disaster — is a generation of a number of various plans and documents to support and guide the recovery. So I wanted to walk you through some of those and get your perspective on what's happening. One of the most essential seems to be titled Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation. It's billed as an economic and disaster recovery plan and seems to become official in the latter half of 2018. Can you tell us how this document came about and what it's trying to accomplish?

Ivis: So this document was put forward by the government of Puerto Rico but in particular by the organization that is like created — it has different names in different places, but it goes something along the lines of Central Office of Recovery and Construction and Resiliency, which in Puerto Rico is the core three. And then they, with like funds from FEMA and also with the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center, they have to develop this recovery plan. So, so basically this is something that it — it needs to happen in accordance to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which is Public Law No. 115-123. And they, there was an organization that was contracted, and they have been contracted in many other places, like the RAND Corporation. And one of the first things that they did, it was collect different plans. So I have talked to many planners that have said, well, that's like, that was a good strategy, just like collecting all the plans [laughs] that existed previously. And basically this is like a synthesis of what had been said in like previous plans in one single document. So the result is that it's like — it actually mentions pretty much everything that you could think of [laughs], because it's like two hundred and seventy specific courses of action, and, and —

Jim: And about five hundred pages [laughs].

Ivis: Yes [laughs]. But again, it's a great synthesis. And it also includes things that are not in other plans, like education, there's a lot of emphasis in health, in agriculture. Of course I will say that there's like two major emphases of the plan. So one of them is the economic recovery. So it talks a lot about the debt and what are some mechanism for basically bringing Puerto Rico's economy to the 21st century. But another thing that it talks a lot about in terms of like transformation is not only the economy but about like how this is going to be done in terms of transparency. So it's one of the only plans that really talks about transparency. And I think that that's also — a lot of like community groups think that this is very important. And also it talks about like how different funding revenues are going to be brought together. So like in total, the, there's like $132 billion that will be needed to reconstruct Puerto Rico, and some of the funds are federal, but there's a lot of like foundations that were identified and a lot of different organizations, private investors, so they were identified [as to] how they will fill the gaps, in terms of the, of the funding. So in general, again, people think that it's a good plan and it's a great synthesis. There's like other plans that people are more like familiar with or talk a lot more about, which is like the action plan, as it's like the plan that actually dictates like how the CDBG-DR [Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Disaster Recovery] funds will be used. So that one is more like common place for, for people.

Jim: Yeah, so, is — do people see any significant progress? I know it's only been one year since that plan was released, but — and it takes a few years to get to any kind of full recovery. But, you know, do people feel that there's progress being made?

Ivis: I think it's too early to tell. And I think that that's what you were alluding to [laughs]. So, so people use it as a way to refer back to things that we would like to see. And in that way, it has been very, very useful, and I will say that this is mostly in conversations with, with planners and obviously like government officials. These are not really conversations that take place in the media or like in community groups in particular. So I think that it might be too early to tell, but also I think that the, this plan is not like very much part of the public discourse. So it's kind of, it's hard because like, again, the media doesn't have its eyes on it, right? In terms of like progress is not being — there might be progress that is not communicated. So in a way, I think, I will say it's too early to tell. But there could be other things that I'm unaware of.

Jim: And the public is probably not associating whatever progress they see with that particular plan. It don't make that connection easily —

Ivis: Right, yes.

Jim: — for the same reason. OK. Now, you talked a bit about the debt that Puerto Rico already had going into Hurricane Irma and Maria. Can you tell us about the fiscal plan for Puerto Rico that came out about the same time last year and how, how's that working?

Ivis: So it is strange to have like the fiscal plan as one of the most important plans to think, when you think about recovery, because this is not normal [laughs]. I will say this is very unique that planners have identified this plan as an important plan to, to refer to. And what this plan calls for is for the budget of the municipalities, which is like there's 78 municipalities, to be cut by 100 percent by like 2022. So there has been already like many, many cuts, and I could tell you about the government of like Comerío in particular. So there have been some cuts that, they cut the first 10 percent and then 20 percent of the budget, so the idea is that the municipalities will find out how they can be self-sustaining, which, you know, in the case of Comerío, they have done some things like trying to create some municipal enterprises, like a hotel and just like tourism. And nobody knows how this is going to work [laughs] because it's very scary, right, for municipalities and — which this will mean that basically small municipalities will be bankrupt. There's the, there's an estimation that's only six municipalities will be self-sustaining. They are like the largest municipalities. But rural places, like, smaller places, will probably go bankrupt. And the idea is that there will be some regionalization of services. So in terms of the essential services, meaning police but also like garbage, all those things will be like seen from the regional level. And another part of the cuts is actually the University of Puerto Rico. So the University of Puerto Rico will be cut like 80 percent of what they received. And the University of Puerto Rico in terms of like planning really is the only place that is giving like free planning services to different organizations in Puerto Rico. And they are definitely leaders in terms of like all these advisory groups that the Foundation for Puerto Rico has or that Vivienda has. So it's hard to see how that will happen. Something that was interesting however is that the recovery funds were calculated in the fiscal plan. So they actually take into account — the scenario would be a lot worse if there was not recovery funds, which is like hard to, to imagine. But, but the plan itself says that the GDP of Puerto Rico, it's expected to go down every year by 2 percent. Even with like the, the recovery funds being calculated into this equation. So, again, this plan is very important. But to go back to your question of like how this has been taking place is that you, you see like the cuts year by year and you still don't see like a movement towards what the plan says, which is like the regionalization of essential services. So those things are not visible yet, if that makes sense.

Jim: Yeah, and it sounds like some of it's forcing a little bit of a wave of public sector entrepreneurialism, but not every municipality is going to be successful with that, and particularly it would seem these smaller municipalities will have probably the least success and the biggest struggle trying to pull that off.

Ivis: Yes. And it will take like a very dedicated mayor — and knowledgeable as well — to be able to keep their staff and do these different enterprises.

Jim: Because it takes a certain amount of expertise to do that.

Ivis: It does. Yes, yes, it does. You know, one criticism that comes out of this is that people saw mayors as being extremely responsive in the, in the crisis. Like, for example, the mayor of Comerío, their staff went every three days and dropped [off] water to people. They did this for like five months. So they in terms of the electrical grid, a lot of like mayors actually lifted it up with volunteers, saving millions and millions of dollars to the federal government, because people did this for for free, really. And mayors, you know, they did so, so much. And a lot of people feel that the, that the central government wasn't really as present, right? So it's kind of like interesting, the dynamic of like the, the mayors now are not going to have like any funds. And the central government actually will see less cuts than mayors, even though the debt — highly ... it was created by the central government.

Jim: Sure. And, you know, you referred to a sizable chunk of the disaster recovery funds being Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery funds; CDBG-DR, for short. That required itself its own plan, a disaster recovery action plan, for how that money would be used. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that is playing out?

Ivis: So this is the action plan of Vivienda, or like the housing authority in Puerto Rico. And these plans, or this plan, says like how the $18.5 billion will be spent. And it has 27 different programs. I'm more familiar with two of those programs because they affect particularly planning the most. So one of them is the whole community resilience program, which is like $55 million. And this program, it's an effort to [do] grassroots planning and also municipal planning or regional planning. But the idea is to have like organizations themselves being associations that are not incorporated nonprofits, or collaboratives of like nonprofits or municipalities. So it's broadly defined of like how you look at the geographical space that you want to plan for, right, and the organizations that will be part of. But the idea is that each collaborative organization, they can apply for like half a million dollars to do planning, and then they will find, from a list of qualified staff members, consultants, many of the people that sign up for this list are actually like planners in Puerto Rico, and they can find experts there in order to conduct these plans. And the Foundation for Puerto Rico is a nonprofit organization that was given the task of actually like managing how this will happen. And they were entitled — or signed a contract with HUD in like, at the beginning of the year, and they have been doing the planning of how this has happened. It was expected that in September they would have the call for, for proposals and people could start applying, but that has been extended until — yeah, the beginning of next year. But that is very exciting for planners because it gives the opportunity for community groups to actually put a plan together. So it's — a lot of people are talking about it. And part of the idea is that some of those — well, what the rest of the plan says, where the funds are going to go, they are tied to the planning itself and the $55 million. There's no details of how much and all that, but of course we know if we do planning, it is possible that it's like tied to funding, so that's very exciting. And there's like, there's another program that a lot of people have been talking about, which is the [Home Repair, Reconstruction, or Relocation Program]. So that's the "Three Rs" program. And the "Three Rs" program is basically for people that, their homes were not repaired. So now they can apply for funds to have their homes repaired, but of course they will have to not exceed $60,000 of the repairs, or they cannot live in a flooding area or area that is prone to landslides. In that case, they could use funds available up to $120,000 to move somewhere else. And so I have been working — or when I talk to, about the housing developer in Chicago, Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, and their interest is — there has been some organizations already that have applied, many of them from the United States, to be able to build this housing. And so a lot of that already started and people applied, actually. They received like 15,000 applications. Not everybody will qualify. There's also a lot of conversation of due process, of how Vivienda managed people applying for the program, because a lot of people were told on the phone that they didn't qualify, even though there's an online application that people can do and that, in that way, they might get like a number, right?

Jim: Right.

Ivis: Like, we have an application, as opposed to like, "Oh, OK, so you live in this area. You cannot — you don't qualify." So there has been a lot of issues in the media regarding, in particular —

Jim: Because some people who might qualify —

Ivis: — of, like, who qualify, who doesn't —

Jim: — get discouraged from qualif— from applying.

Ivis: Yes, exactly.

Jim: Yeah, one of the questions that comes from all this is that there's been a good deal of controversy from the beginning about the level of federal support for Puerto Rico, and, you know, we get presidential tweets and congressional comments, and that eats up a lot of media attention. But part of what is emerging from what you're saying is there's an awful lot of other work below those levels of government in terms of the federal connection to Puerto Rico that probably are more important in practical terms than the conversation going on at political levels.

Ivis: Mmhm. Yes. However, these conversations really affect also what's happening [on] the ground. So I think that most recently, like a few months ago, Trump said that Puerto Rico had received, I think it was like $92 billion.

Jim: Right.

Ivis: Puerto Rico actually was like allocated like $42 billion, and of that $14 billion have been received. So we are talking about one-third of the aid has been received. And I think that a major conversation there was that, because like Governor Rosselló resigned, then in those, like — in the discourse of that conversation, he was favoring friends, right. And there [were] some contracts that were given. There was like the, the Whitefish contract that — there was like more information about that, right. And there were some things that were, you know, FEMA found that the people getting these contracts, they were not really qualified, right. So which means it's like favors. And that like really, it started the conversation of like more oversight. And something that happened with, with Puerto Rico's debt is that the federal government put the, an oversight board that was like appointed, of like seven members that were not elected, to make decisions about where to, where to put the cost, or where to cut costs. And then the fiscal plan that we talked about, it was actually done with the governor but with the oversight of the board. So now there was a conversation of like, now we need — they were calling it a federal funds "czar," that will actually like be looking over Puerto Rico's spending of the federal funds, receiving [that] spending in order to like have more transparency. And there was a lot of like community groups. I was part of one of those community groups, the National Low Income Housing Coalition. They have the Disaster Recovery Coalition. They talk on the phone and I strategized, talk to like members of Congress about what can — well, what can we do. And there was a lot of like push from that group and many other groups about actually creating like a group of citizens. And by citizens I mean people in the private sector, people in the academic sector, nonprofits, but also, you know, public housing residents, community leaders, to actually like have a look into these funds. And the last thing I heard — but this is, again, has not been in the news, this is more like from other community groups and from people — that actually Vivienda, which is like HUD, or the housing administration in Puerto Rico, is creating an organization that will, is like citizen led, that is an advisory organization to [oversee] the funds. So that's kind of like a big deal, that we didn't have, like — this czar. And that instead we have like a group that will actually like ensure that we have more transparency with the funds. So let's see how that unfolds in the future.

Jim: In any event, the political turmoil clearly influences the direction of the recovery and some of these policies. There's another issue that I wanted to explore here because it's a special problem in Puerto Rico, common in Latin America, even in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which is the issue of land tenure and people's proof of ownership of land and housing. Can you talk about that a bit and kind of illuminate how that has complicated some of the implementation of recovery planning?

Ivis: So in Puerto Rico there's a lot of informality, and by informality there's like two aspects of it. One of it is like the informality of the land, that people don't own the land and they don't have title. And about 20 percent of people cannot prove that they are the legitimate owners of the, of the land and by proxy of the home that they lived in. But there's also like a lot of informality, and it's up to 55 percent of homes are like — do not have like, they don't have the proper codes, right. And people — there's a lot of like self-help building, and so on. The issue that we are talking about mostly is the informality of the title itself, of the land or the home. So a lot of people could not prove that they owned or have the title, and there's many reasons of why that is the case. It could be that you, like, what is called in Puerto Rico, in many places in Latin America, rescue land. So it just means that you just go and take a piece of land. You build the housing there. But it could also be that, with your family members, you build [on] land that belonged to your family three generations ago and you cannot prove that, you know, this is yours either. It could be that you also like build on top of your family member, and that will not qualify as being your own home. And if somebody received FEMA assistance, we already have an address maybe in the bottom floor that received the FEMA assistance, so you cannot receive assistance as well as the household. There's [an] issue with addresses as well. So there's people who live [on] their employer's land. There's lots of ways that you could end up of not having a title. So a lot of people were denied. Actually like 60 percent of all applications were denied. And there's like, it's like more than 40 codes of why FEMA can deny you. But one of those is that you cannot prove that you own your home. So however, you mentioned like how in New Orleans and in other places like in Texas and in the United States, there's people that cannot prove that they have a title either. So there was the idea of like what what could be done, and what we learned from those spaces, and by we I mean like through the National Income Housing Coalition, it like brings people from different cities to work together. So they say, "Well, we have done, we did before like a sworn statement," which is saying basically you just say, you know, this is my house and then you fight and you just sign it and —

Jim: It's like an affidavit.

Ivis: — try to prove it. Yeah, try to prove it, like in other ways — maybe, you know, showing that you have paid your electrical bills or you receive mail there, in other ways. So there was these groups, the Ayuda Legal Huracán María, this is a lawyers' group. Another one, Acceso a la Justicia. And there's another lawyers' group — [Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia], I should say. And they actually started to — and this was done actually with FEMA, so FEMA approved of these sworn statements as well. The issue is that it wasn't really promoted and that people who already were denied, they received a letter saying that they were denied, and now there were these lawyers saying, "No, you can still do it." So a lot of people actually didn't do it. And part of the conversations were, "Well, why not FEMA actually sends a letter to everyone saying, 'Now you can do this sworn statement.'" But there's, like — the conversation there has been they cannot really do that because they cannot do something special, right, for one, for Puerto Rico. Like, they would have to do it for everyone. And so there [were] some other issues related to that. But these two advocacy organizations have been working very hard into letting people know that they could receive FEMA assistance, but of course they're like very small and limited and there's not a lot of information that people, you know, they, they know — they could say, "OK, yes, I'm going to apply." So, again, it was like a lot of — there [were] more denials than in other disasters. But I also wanted to mention that there's, there's many other places like in New Orleans and Texas and North Carolina — this was definitely an issue as well.

Jim: Right. Just given the sheer complexity of this whole recovery effort in Puerto Rico, is there something that you would consider one of the major indicators of some kind of success so far?

Ivis: I think that the community organizing has been, in my eyes, pretty successful. So I will combine what happened with Governor Rosselló and ... him resigning and having more people active in order to participate in the action plan and in the fiscal plan and people just having like their voices being heard, unlike these organizations like through the National Low Income Housing Coalition but also also like Ayuda Legal [and] [Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia]. So these, these organizations have been very active, and the fact that now Vivienda has like a citizen like advisory group, I think that that's a major win for, for transparency. So in that sense, I think that that is going well. I think a lot people are self-organizing for these plans that we talked about with the whole resilience — community resilience planning. So I think that that hasn't happened yet, but it is exciting that people have the opportunity to do their own planning. And the other thing is that in terms of, like, for example, the hazard mitigation plans, there was these applications for FEMA in where, a lot of community groups actually like submitted our applications for projects, and it was like a record high in terms of like all the organizations and part of it is because there was a lot of like mobilization from different community groups. I will give a specific example of like the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. They have been doing these like classes of like how to apply for — put your FEMA application for the mitigation plans. And they were online and there was like this like massive turnout in terms of like organizations that have applied for the funds. So of course they have been doing conferences now for about like two years and bringing people together and creating a network of people primarily like nonprofits but also like businesses that have like some kind of social purpose. I would call it like social entrepreneurship in where they, they — you are able to mobilize so at the right time when you need to have those proposals done, people actually like submit them. So I think that those have been like major wins.

Jim: That's a very interesting answer and not the one that you would normally expect after a disaster in most places, but very interesting for Puerto Rico. Let me lead that into further question, which is: Given the extreme vulnerability of Puerto Rico made worse by Hurricane Maria than it even was before the storm, what do you think this does to help them become prepared for potential future disasters? Because those vulnerabilities are still out there; the possibilities of future disaster events like Maria are still out there.

Ivis: Well, I wish that there was more thought about mitigation. A lot of people are — do [talk] about mitigation, but one main issue that planners have discussed at length is that the the action plan and the mitigation plans are not really talking to each other, and the people who are part of those plans and who manages the plans, or, is like completely different. So for the action plan it's like Vivienda, and for the mitigation plans it's the planning board. And there's not, again, a lot of conversation. So the idea is like if we want to be more resilient in the future, we should think more about hazard mitigation. That should be first. And maybe those funds even could be distributed first, right? Because if, for example, if you build a wall, that makes it so the river doesn't — there's flooding, then maybe you don't have to move those homes. But the priority for the action plan and for HUD is very much about doing safety first, right? So it's a — "OK, so let's move those people out of the river now," and then there might not be like future mitigation in that particular space, of course, because people at that point would have moved, but of course they can move voluntarily, so not everybody will move. And that's one example of like how if maybe you were thinking about mitigation first, you could potentially make it safer for people that are going to like choose to stay where they are. Because my guess is that a lot of people, especially older adults, are going to choose to stay in their community and their home as opposed to move somewhere else. So I think that, in the long run, Puerto Rico as a whole, after these federal funds have come in and after all these like projects have been completed, it will be more resilient. And again planners are really like pushing for, for that. But as of right now there's, there's a struggle between "let's move and do what we need to do" and thinking about the future.

Jim: So there's some, some bit of a long road ahead in terms of really approaching a holistic approach to this entire matter.

Ivis: Yes.

Jim: So let's close by letting you tell us how listeners can find you online. And also are there particular resources that you think they should know about and how can they find them?

Ivis: So people can find me at the University of Utah in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department, again under Ivis Garcia Zambrana, assistant professor. I also wanted to refer people to useful resources. I think that one of them that has really helped me a lot and I try to stay connected to is Rebuild Puerto Rico. And this is like a webpage of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. They have been building a GIS platform for Puerto Rico, and it's like the most complete one that I have seen. So it has over like 50 layers looking at flood zones, looking at where like community centers might be, just like different demographics. It's like very useful if you want to learn about Puerto Rico and its geography. Also [on] that webpage, people can connect to organizations; they can volunteer. Some people might accept volunteers also that — you know, you could be working at home and doing something for an organization in Puerto Rico. There's a lot of research reports there. They published one on housing, school closures just recently. I actually published one that will be coming up soon, that it is about the nonprofit sector and like funding. So again the Rebuild Puerto Rico, with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, is a great resource. And I would like to point everyone to another resource, and it is the American, or the APA — Planning magazine. And this, the issue of September and August was actually dedicated to hazards mitigation. And I wrote an article titled "Puerto Rico Lurches Towards Recovery." And in this article, which actually I coauthored with Robert Olshanky and also David Carrasquillo, it outlines some of the topics that we discuss today, from the whole community resilience program to the FEMA denials for informal housing as well as the disaster recovery action plan. And there's another resource as well. This one is a little bit older, but I think that it will give everyone a good background of the different plans that we discussed. This one is called "Four Plans for Shaping the Future of Puerto Rico." And this was actually published at the beginning of this year. It was a blog of the American Planning Association, and this actually talks about the four plans that we have talked about today, which is the fiscal plan, the RAND plan for economic recovery and transformation, as well as the action plan and the hazards mitigation plan. So if anyone wants more background on those four plans, please check out APA’s blog from — at the beginning of this year, in January, “Four Plans for Shaping the Future of Puerto Rico.”

Jim: Great, thank you very much.


Jim: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For resources on hazard mitigation and disaster recovery, visit To hear past episodes of the APA podcast, visit You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send it to


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