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Disaster Recovery in Puerto Rico: Understanding Resilience Through the Island’s Communities

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

The Caribbean faces numerous natural hazards, including hurricanes and earthquakes. Relative to most countries, Caribbean nations experience disproportionately higher impacts of these events in terms of fatalities and damages. Puerto Rico’s experience is not different from other islands in the Caribbean, but its limitation on political and economic power has resulted in local and federal government recovery efforts being very slow and limited at best. As a result, communities on the island have created the conditions to recover from these events by creating collective strategies, to access essential resources, e.g., water, food, and medicine.

This dissertation centers around the experiences of communities in Puerto Rico under cascading disasters (e.g., storms, earthquakes, COVID-19 pandemic). It follows a mixed-methods approach that investigates how disaster resilience needs to incorporate the goals of environmental equity community empowerment under climate change conditions. It pays special attention to water governance issues within these foci, as it intersects communication, collective action, and governance.This dissertation used three different research designs to investigate how resilience mechanisms and processes play out on community members and stakeholders in Puerto Rico. In the first study, I used a text analysis approach to discuss how communities can impact disaster recovery through social media communication. This chapter reflected how people use Twitter under disaster conditions. In the second study, I employed a survey including two regression models to generate discussion about the resource mobilization capacity of Puerto Rico's small water systems under disasters. For the third and final study, I used a qualitative approach, including non-structured interviews and an ethnographic approach to Puerto Rico’s community aqueducts volunteers and personnel. This last study aims to identify diverse understandings of resilience and the role of water in operationalizing it.

The findings indicate the importance of inclusion and community empowerment in creating strategies and understandings of resilience that can help communities to recover. The first study revealed social media's importance when traditional communication channels fail to convey critical information. Additional to social media, social networks play a crucial role in accessing resources resulting in shorter recovery time for communities. Finally, all studies underscore the importance of accessing drinking water under disaster conditions and how it can serve as a vehicle to study how communities stressed by social and environmental conditions recover after a disaster.

This research gave the opportunity for those voices most impacted by disasters to be included, revealing several and complicating issues about resilience for decision-makers to consider. In addition, the findings provide a groundwork for assessing interventions to improve disaster recovery strategies for historically marginalized communities

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