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PROTECT Researchers evaluate Hurricane Maria’s Impact and suggest a ‘Visionary Rebuilding’ plan for Government Institutions

December 14, 2018

The PROTECT Center, led by CEE Professor Akram Alshawabkeh, studies exposure to environmental contamination in Puerto Rico and its contribution to preterm birth. It is funded through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program.


Source: PROTECT

The impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island is massive, with over a thousand lives lost and over $90 billion dollars in damage, part of which decimated the electric grid and 80% of the agricultural sector. Many Puerto Ricans were left homeless and a total of 215,000 people left the island for the mainland as a result. This, combined with the lack of an appropriate federal response, pre-existing colonial debt, and over a century of environmental injustices, made the overall negative impact of the hurricanes stark and beyond devastating.

PROTECT, CRECE, ECHO, & ZIP researchers collaborated to publish an article for the Environmental Justice Journal discussing our cross-center interdisciplinary research team’s disaster response to the aftermath and destruction that resulted from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico in September of 2017, but also proposed a ‘Visionary Rebuilding’ plan for the future.

As environmental health researchers with strong ties and relationships with the local health centers, nonprofit health organizations, and environmental organizations, our teams take an environmental justice and social determinants of health approach to interactions with the community and research on the island. This approach takes into account the island’s socioeconomic status, colonial history, racial/ethnic composition, and history of environmental injustice—including but not limited to the high number of Superfund and other hazardous waste sites.

Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico, our Research Centers have worked actively to help support recovery efforts and collaborated with various organizations and community partners to ensure the safety of team members, study participants, health centers, and members of the surrounding community. Our teams worked tirelessly for months following the Hurricanes to help distribute goods and assistance throughout the surrounding communities, resulting in over 500 care packages sent to families.

PROTECT and CRECE also developed educational materials related to environmental and public health issues during the recovery, including food and water safety concerns. Our Centers have particularly focused on advising communities near Superfund sites to reduce the negative impact of contaminated drinking water and to increase awareness of potential health impacts, as this issue has continued to compound throughout the months since the Hurricane.

This paper not only mapped out the timeline of the Hurricane and our overall response, but also outlined what a ‘Visionary Rebuilding’ of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, economy, and morale would look like. Directing their focus towards government institutions, the authors advise a show of social solidarity, with principles of justice and regeneration at the forefront to not only rebuild Puerto Rico, but address the history of environmental and social injustices.

To read more, please refer to the full journal article here.