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Building Resilience and Community in Puerto Rico

By Carson Bear
Saving Places

With Puerto Rico still reeling from Hurricane Maria, the community there faces an urgent need. During the storm, thousands of buildings—historic and new—lost their roofs. Fresh rain furthers damages to these places, delaying people’s return to their homes, businesses, and normal routines.

To address this need, the National Trust is working with our partner, Para La Naturaleza (Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico) to provide tarps to 200 homes and other buildings in Puerto Rico. Every donation of $75 will provide a tarp to an affected home or other building to protect it from the elements, slow the structural damage, and help our fellow citizens get back on their feet faster.

We sat down with Ivonne Sanabria Pérez, Board and Advisory Council Coordinator of Para La Naturaleza, to talk more about the Tarps Campaign and how Puerto Rico is building resilience in the wake of tragedy.

As Puerto Rico begins rebuilding, what preservation needs are most important to address?

Right now, we are working together with over 50 Puerto Rican communities in naturally protected places. Part our funding is going towards helping community centers serve their residents’ needs. If the community center doesn’t have power, we’re getting them solar power. If the community doesn’t have filtered water, we’re sending them filters. We’ve already been working on that part of the relief effort.

For us, handing out food and water is over. We’ve moved onto the second phase, and we’re rebuilding; we want to build resilience within our communities.

Why are Puerto Rican buildings in need of tarps? How does the Tarps Campaign work?

[Hurricane Maria]—which led to over 20 hours of sustained hurricane force winds—caused major damage to roofs in particular throughout the island. A lot of the roofs [which are usually made of galvanized metal] went with the hurricane. For the next two or three weeks, water kept coming into the homes as it continued to rain.

We originally thought that our organization could set aside zones with buildings in historic areas that had suffered damage to provide them with tarps but, because we weren’t the owners of these homes, we couldn’t really do anything. That part of the relief response is rather slow, and getting tarps to each home depends entirely upon its owner.

“It’s really important to have hope that we won’t have to rebuild on our own. The Tarps Campaign will go a long way in symbolizing that help is coming. ”

Ivonne Sanabria Pérez, Board and Advisory Council Coordinator of Para La Naturaleza

We were also concerned, because there is a sense that we’re all alone in this, that each resident whose home had sustained damages felt they were fighting this on their own. Residents who lost their roofs may be staying with a family member or at a shelter, or may not have food. They definitely don’t have power and may not trust the water, so everything is a challenge.

We want to provide a sense that help is coming, that people understand there’s someone out there who knows what we’re going through. I think it’s really important to have hope that we won’t have to rebuild on our own. The Tarps Campaign will go a long way in symbolizing that help is coming. And all this effort made by people we don’t even know? That’s wonderful.

What can we do in the future to support long-term resiliency, especially because of the lessons we’ve learned from the way natural disasters have been handled in the past?

One of the most wonderful things in coming to the States has been networking with people who already went through this in Katrina and in Florida. They understand exactly where I’m coming from. I know what FEMA can and can’t do because someone who already lived through that [explained it to me]. That exchange of knowledge should be perpetuated, so it’s accessible for those who are making decisions about the next disaster.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

photo by:Carlos Giusti/AP

Hurricane damage in Old San Juan.

We also need to train people in the trades of rebuilding, and particularly in rebuilding historic structures. [Para La Naturaleza] was already beginning to work on that, but Maria has really sped up the process and prioritized skills we hadn’t thought were priorities before the hurricane.

There is a place for other nonprofits and businesses in all of this. The people who are overseeing the preservation of Puerto Rico in an official capacity [employees at Puerto Rico’s State Historic Preservation Office, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, and other government organizations] have experienced massive loss, as well.

One lesson learned is that we can all work to support each other. Our nonprofit has something to contribute to state preservation groups. They don’t have to wait for their employees to be able to survey the island because we have volunteers to help out. We can convey information with one voice, and we can decide how we need to tackle the future together.

What is the connection between preservation and human life when it comes to a disaster like Hurricane Maria?

When it comes to preservation, your home is your home. Preserving these places matters to you because they are more than historic places. I am not as concerned with preserving historic institutional buildings because they will get funding and resources. But most of our historic areas are in towns and residential areas, and that’s all they have. This is their sense of place. It’s where they wake up every morning, it’s where they eat. I can’t fathom the notion that preservation is not important or relevant to daily life, or not something that needs to be tackled immediately.

Most people are saying that there are phases to disaster recovery—that we need to get water, food, and shelter first, and that assessment of damages for historic homes and historic properties can wait. But our organization isn’t giving out water or providing shelter, so what can we do? The organizations who handle these two types of needs are separate, so both can work [on addressing Puerto Rico’s needs] at the same time. That way, when our state preservation organizations are ready to move onto the next phase of rebuilding, they’ll have more information than if they had to wait to make an assessment for damages.

Is there a silver lining to all of this?

It has to do with the psyche of surviving a catastrophe. We’re connecting to our neighbors and helping each other out, because we don’t have any devices to rely on right now.

I’ve asked people from New Orleans if this understanding of what really matters will last, or if we’ll regain power and forget what our communities have recovered. The answer seems to be that we can do both: We can keep the human connections and friendships that we’ve made, and the feeling that our community is cognizant of our neighbors’ needs—but we can also use Facebook. The way you grow when you survive a catastrophic event really does inform who you become.

I’m hoping to look back in 15 years and see that we did [the right thing]. The past few months have been very difficult, but I wouldn’t change what’s happened. I wouldn’t change what I’ve learned for the world.

Featured Photo: Adobe Stock Photos

Carson Bear is an Editorial Assistant at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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