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Engage to Rebuild Puerto Rico

Victor R. Martínez

For the past several weeks Puerto Rico has gone through a rescue and recovery process after Hurricane Maria hit and left thousands of peoples without homes, millions with no electricity or water, and thousands without food and other needs. The images that come from Puerto Rico are horrible, and the first question that comes into mind is, "What can we do?”

On Saturday, October 28, 2017, Centro will hold a Rebuild Puerto Rico conference as a special edition of its Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans series. The conference will focus on rebuilding Puerto Rico and the role of stateside communities supporting such efforts.

This conference will follow an on-site/online format since it includes panelists and participants from Puerto Rico as well as stateside communities. Video conference technology will be used to allow panelists who cannot travel to New York City to participate remotely. The public can join us either at the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work facilities in East Harlem, where we have held numerous conferences, or online. In addition to live-streaming plenaries, virtual conference rooms will be available for the public to attend the breakout sessions.

The discussion panels include: energy; health; education; environment; food and agriculture;; nonprofit organizations and grassroots advocacy; economic development; and diaspora engagement with the media.

Energy. Just 13% of the Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority clients have service. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has granted a $240 million contract to the Texas-based Fluor Corporation to reestablish electrical power. The government of Puerto Rico has been in talks with Tesla and other private companies to spearhead projects to help in this effort. In addition, the New York Power Authority and other states are providing help. An important question now is whether Puerto Rico will fix what it had or will it turn this tragedy into an opportunity to redesign the energy grid and implement a more sustainable system.

Health. Long before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the health system of the U.S. territory was struggling from lack of resources and doctors necessary to provide services. Many Puerto Rican doctors from the diaspora are in Puerto Rico helping in the aftermath of the hurricane. This disaster has confirmed the problems of Puerto Rico’s healthcare system and the need for reform. It is fundamental in the rebuilding process to envision how to fix Puerto Rico’s health system and how the diaspora can help.

Education. Schools have been strongly affected, and dozens of teachers and children are moving stateside. No one knows when the island’s school system will return to normal, and college students are looking for alternatives to finish the semester. Puerto Rico’s public education system needs to be reorganized in ways that take into consideration outmigration and damages to schools' infrastructure. To rebuild Puerto Rico a modern school system is needed, one in which students are considered the future of the island.

Environment. Hurricane Maria has created a number of environmental problems that affect the economy and the health of the population. It is important to consider the environmental problems before the hurricane and the new challenges created by the disaster. What environmental strategies will improve social conditions and the economic development of Puerto Rico?

Food and agriculture. The agriculture sector of Puerto Rico is one of the most affected by Hurricane Maria. According to unofficial numbers, 80% of crops were lost. In addition, food was scarce for days. Food shortage resulted from the difficulties that private companies in the supply chain and government encountered in the ports and airports. Puerto Rico needs policies that will improve the agriculture sector in order to increase the consumption of local grown products. Ultimately, the rebuilding of Puerto Rico requires a sustainable food and agriculture system.

Nonprofit organizations and grassroots advocacy. In places where the federal and local government response was lacking, nonprofit organizations were able to be the first assisting people in need. Nonprofit organizations are already helping in the rebuilding process. Grassroots advocacy groups are as well, and they will continue to be needed to advocate for millions of U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.

Economic development. Economic development will help improve other sectors, such as health and education. Business development is necessary for jobs creation and economic recovery. We have the opportunity to support bold policies for small business development and innovation.

Diaspora engagement with the media. Now is the time for the diaspora to engage in support of Puerto Rico. We need to pressure the U.S. media to continue covering the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded after Hurricane Maria. The diaspora could exert pressure on Congress and the U.S. media on behalf of Puerto Rico to facilitate the rebuilding process.

Other topics to be discussed during the Rebuild Puerto Rico conference include housing, children and families, and faith-based and psychosocial interventions. We need to gather, share ideas, and create a plan that will be beneficial for our people in Puerto Rico and for stateside Puerto Ricans.

For more information about the conference, visit: https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/events-news/events/conferences/puerto-ricopuerto-ricans/prsa-program