Reflections on Serving a Strong People Facing Intricate Fragility, One Year After Hurricane Maria

It’s been a year. Recovering from a disaster like Hurricane Maria was never expected to be complete by now. A Category 4 hurricane, Maria engulfed the Islands of Puerto Rico on the 20th of September 2017, leaving thousands of people dead, many more without IMG_7790the necessities of life, transforming certain ecosystems forever, traumatizing survivors, and changing the Islands of Puerto Rico forevermore. Hurricane Maria lead to heartache and hope, for people on the Islands and those of us watching in solidarity from afar. And on this anniversary, those of us who are very far away but left a part of our hearts there, still are pondering how to assist from here in the years ahead.

Since Maria, in my capacity as a law professor and director of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have been to Puerto Rico five times. I traveled there in December, again for two weeks over January-February, then returned three times in the summer (in June, July, and August). As a lawyer offering pro bono policy and legal service, my presence was not needed immediately after the storm. I got there after some of the worst visible damage was repaired, and the planning for how to help people, communities, and the territory recover began in earnest. As I look back, I arrived as the intricate fragility of Puerto Rico’s new reality was setting in.

IMG_8178Through those trips, I have seen progress in recovery, and gotten to know people of amazing resilience. I have also come to understand the nature of the legal limitations facing the territory. I have puzzled about the legacy of challenging energy and water delivery services and how to encourage real energy, climate justice, and other sustainability. I have witnessed the tough economics of many of those whose families have called the Islands home for generations (as compared to those who visit to play or profit). I have seen the gorgeous ecosystem which has regrown in some ways, but been immutably changed in others. And I have looked into the eyes and heard the stories of some of those who are working for access to true justice.

My two favorite trips were when I had the honor of travelling alongside over a dozen amazing #UBLawResponds-PR student attorneys. With the backing of generous donors and the many extra hours of labor by dedicated staff, these young people worked extremely hard to prepare and serve in the wake of the disaster. The University atIMG_9516 Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinicwas the best of service-learning, offering raw insight into both human needs and human strength. The Clinic showed these soon-to-be attorneys up close what people with legal and policy training can do…and what they can’t do. It left most of them wanting to do more, not only in Puerto Rico, but also for other vulnerable populations.

Yet here we are, a year after Maria struck. In the reports that look back today, we can read and listen to incredibly intense stories. Like the one from NPR exploring how an “unbearable debt crisis, the antiquated power grid and gross political ambition and unreliability were accomplices to the natural disaster.”Or story exploring some personal aftermath published by the New York Times entitled “Sunrise Melodies and Tearful Reflections: Puerto Rico a Year After Maria,” relating the experiences of people “still wrangling with the federal government over money to rebuild their home” and noting that “generosity and the solidarity among neighbors was the only positive remnant of the storm.” Or one ABC affiliate’s video, reporting on a town where #UBLawResponds-PR Student Attorneys assisted with pro bono legal services, in a piece entitled “AccuWeather in Puerto Rico: Hundreds of homes in Loiza still damaged 1 year after Hurricane Maria.”Or a Reuters piece, that relays a heartbreaking truth: “shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.” Or the Associate Press story “For Puerto Rico’s poor, hurricane was heavy blow” that tells the story of a man who received seriously insufficient federal aid and has emptied his pension since the storm, and “sees no immediate prospect of moving out of the only habitable space in his home, an enclosed balcony still missing windows from Maria.” Such vivid coverage of the actual storm itself one year ago was only the beginning. Stories of the tragic aftermath and the intricate fragility will continue for years to come.

IMG_9295#UBLawResponds-PR knows firsthand what Puerto Rico is facing, and is continuing to do work with and for Puerto Rico community partners. At this point, our work is primarily in the areas of resilience and energy/climate justice, insurance, and work on behalf of veterans who live there. We are proud of the service we have already done, and remain committed to being of continuing service from Buffalo. We know that, ¡Puerto Rico se levanta! (loosely translated to Puerto Rico stands up (or rises)) … and #UBLawResponds-PR will continue to stand with them.

 

 

Connecting with Welcoming Experts in Puerto Rico

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Group planning brunch with Professor Connolly, Professor Ortiz Garcia, UPR student Ibrahim Rodriguez and UB Student Attorneys Dave Yovanoff and Eamon Riley.

Puerto Rico was a welcoming place. Despite some concerns among those of us serving as Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic before coming, seldom did we feel uncomfortable or unwanted. After explaining our presence to experts on the islands, the most common response was to help us achieve our goal, whether by pointing us to the next house in need of supplies, or by explaining an obscure legal issue. These individual interactions coalesced to paint a broader picture of Puerto Rico, and helped me to identify areas of potential, and concern, for the islands.

One early interaction I had was with the Director of the Environmental Legal Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Law School. Once I explained to him that I was a dual degree student pursuing both a JD and an Urban Planning Master’s degree, he was able to quickly take me through changes he sees underway in Puerto Rico’s land use regulations. The Puerto Rico Planning Board serves as a centralized planning agency for the island. Currently, there are proposed changes that will weaken the role of the Planning Board, and empower individual municipalities in making land use decisions. While there are positives and negatives to both structures for land use planning, the current proposed change presents opportunity to implement innovative policy tailored to local contexts. He also informed us to major supply chain issues for local and organic farmers, and the implementation of plans as presenting potential problems.

Along with my colleague Dave, I also met with two planning professors at UPR, Luis E. Santiago Acevedo, and Maritza Barreto-Orta Ph. D. These professors focused on issues primarily associated with water.  When we explained our ideas around water and solar, they were able to confirm some of our hypothesis. They explained that water quality and delivery is a vexing issue for many on the islands. Further, they described difficulties farmers have in attaining “bonafied status” for their crops. The professors illustrated the differences between upper and lower watersheds, relative to where crops are grown, and the types of agriculture methods used. Prof. Santiago also spoke on the recent reinvestment in sugar production as a potential economic growth area.

These early meeting with expert academics from UPR provided a context sensitive understanding that we built upon with people working in the field implementing solutions. Cecilio Ortiz García, and his student Ibrahim Rodriguez, met us for a breakfast meeting on our day off. They are working to establish a platform, known as INESI, to connect sustainability projects across PR. Their goal is to build a collaborative framework to maximize the potential impact of these projects. Connecting with them allowed our team to speak at the RISE-PR videoconference to share our on the ground work with #UBLawResponds.

Finally, we were lucky to meet Tara Rodríguez Besosa, as well as two of her collaborators Luz Cruz, and Ora Wise. Their team has been, and continues, to do amazing on the ground work bringing healthy, sustainable, and local foods to Puerto Rico. Before the Hurricane, Tara was running El Departmento de Comida, a local food hub that had grown into a farm-to-table restaurant. During the Hurricane’s immediate aftermath, their team was working with Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Tara is returning her organization to its roots by reestablishing the food hub, and working with the Resiliency Fund develop 200 new farms in the next two years. Her emphasis on local and sustainable products and import replacement has a need for supportive legislative, on the state and local level in Puerto Rico. Her model for economic development could be replicated and altered to fit other industries to help regrow Puerto Rico’s economy.

Each expert we met helped to further assemble the complex picture of Puerto Rico’s status. Each new connection strengthened our long term relationship with the islands. Each new piece of information helped to get our perspectives to a better place for serving Puerto Rico. We have taken this information, and have made an effort to form what will be the future of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Hopefully, that clinic will allow new students in #UBLawResponds to grow as they work to serve Puerto Rico and its long term recovery.