By Cindy Spence
In August 2017, architecture Professor Martha Kohen was teaching Resilience of the Caribbean Islands, a graduate seminar. She started her classes with a roundtable discussion of current events, something she calls the World News Café, an idea she borrowed from sociology.
“We do it every class for 15 minutes or so, and students bring interesting outlooks that can be applied to the class,” says Kohen. “It gets us out of the ivory tower and more linked to what’s going on in the world.”
On Sept. 26, a month into the semester, the news was bleak. In the week since the last class meeting, Hurricane Maria had hit Puerto Rico. Even the earliest reports from the island indicated the direct hit from the category 4 hurricane was a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions. Overnight a society crumbled: electricity, communications, food, water and infrastructure disappeared.
As the class talked, an idea emerged: Puerto Rico is so close – hop a plane in Florida at lunchtime and you could have dinner in San Juan – wasn’t there something the University of Florida could do?
Kohen thought so and took the lead, making connections across campus, and weeks later, UF hosted displaced Puerto Rican students and faculty. Then at semester’s end, UF's Center for Hydro-generated Urbanism hosted a conference on campus, led by architecture Professor Nancy Clark, focused on tropical storms as a setting for adaptive development and architecture. But Kohen knew the best way for her students to help Puerto Rico – and learn at the same time – was to put boots on the ground.
When she organized Puerto Rico Re_Start for the spring semester, all the students wanted to go.
“Everyone saw an opportunity to make a difference,” Kohen says. “Everyone wanted to help.”
Kohen cast a wide net in her call to action, leveraging her international contacts, and by March, a small army of 104 students, 35 professors, five U.S. and European universities and one UNESCO chair had teamed up to descend on Puerto Rico for 10 intense days of morning-to-night workshops and charrettes focused on helping the island imagine rebuilding.
The Puerto Rico Re_Start group piled into school buses to tour sites devastated by the storm and then broke into five design labs, each with its own mission (see pages 22-23). The diverse, multidisciplinary group could have stopped there, handing off its ideas for rebuilding with resiliency and sustainability in mind to the Puerto Rican people, but the connections flourished.
The synergy created by their interdisciplinary work has turned research on Puerto Rico’s rebuilding into almost a full-time enterprise for Kohen, Clark and research associate Maria Estefania Barrios.
They’ve been to New York, back and forth to Puerto Rico, and presented at a conference hosted by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Along the way, their network has grown.
In New York, at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York, Kohen found herself talking with a cell service provider who wanted to establish direct satellite connections, not dependent on cell towers and Puerto Rico’s fragile utility grid. Earlier, she had been talking with an architect who told her he had identified 200 community centers that would be good sites for solar power. She made the introductions.
“I said, ‘Jonathan, do you know Jose Luis? No? Jose Luis, do you know Jonathan?’” Kohen recalled. “I got them together face to face, and now they are working together. Things can happen faster once these connections are made.”
A year after Maria, the UF architects have become glue people, playing a role in connecting NGOs and agencies, entrepreneurs and academics who want to help rebuild Puerto Rico.
“We need to connect information from churches, banks, authorities, all the people who want to do things but don’t know what everybody else is doing,” Kohen says.
Barrios has received special training to help with a Hunter College databank in its Center for Puerto Rican Studies to help with all the projects related to rebuilding Puerto Rico. Kohen notes that 990 NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations, work in Puerto Rico, but most are not connected with the others. With the databank, anyone can see who is doing what and team up. All the design labs for Puerto Rico Re_Start are on a website, which is linked to the databank, and they pop up with a keyword search.
And online is where FEMA found the UF team and drew them in to the government’s conversations about how to help in Puerto Rico’s recovery.
The architecture students’ instincts were right. UF could help, and in more ways than one.
When Harold Lathon landed in Puerto Rico with a FEMA team to assess response and recovery options, he says he found storm damage of historic magnitude. That’s quite a statement, considering that Lathon cut his teeth on Hurricane Katrina, and he has seen the aftermath of catastrophic storms such as Hurricanes Sandy and Ike since.
He knew the response and recovery would require a huge team with diverse expertise, and he began to do some research. He came across Puerto Rico Re_Start and decided academia might have resources to offer. He reached out to Kohen.
“I was so impressed with her willingness to work collaboratively,” says Lathon, who is the transportation sector task force lead for National Disaster Recovery Support. “That’s the beauty of recovery, when you can find partners that are willing to work collaboratively. We will need additional strategic partners from academia, the public sector and the private sector.”
Lathon invited Clark to be a moderator of a panel on ecological urbanism and transportation recovery planning at a FEMA summit in July designed to bring together the best ideas for recovery.
In August, Kohen and Clark hosted Lathon on a visit to UF, and Lathon says he found on campus a wealth of resources that could be leveraged to help Puerto Rico rebuild.
“We have an opportunity to take a holistic, comprehensive look at reconstructing Puerto Rico, and we see a number of programs here at the University of Florida that could help,” Lathon says. “I’m excited to see the work going on in the various labs.”
In his three days on campus, Lathon toured the Powell Family Structures & Materials Laboratory, which researches hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados among other structural stresses. He visited the GeoPlan Center, which uses geographic information systems to support planning for land use, transportation and the environment. He met with engineering Associate Professor David Prevatt, who studies mitigation of wind damage and the performance of residential structures under high winds. He also met with Morris Hylton III, director of UF’s Historic Preservation Program, and with Jeff Carney, the associate director for the Florida Institute for Built Environment Resilience.
The theme that runs through the UF labs and research programs is sustainability and resilience, and those two factors will be the key to both rebuilding Puerto Rico and girding the island against future hurricanes. In the midst of the challenge, he says, there are great opportunities.
“This is the first time in disaster recovery history that we find ourselves in a place where we may be able to provide a sustainable financial solution in recovery,” Lathon says.
Part of the challenge for Puerto Rico is its condition before Maria. The island never recovered from an economic downturn in 2006-08 and its infrastructure has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance. The power grid was already fragile before it was knocked out by Maria. That makes the Puerto Rico Re_Start approach – planning for sustainability and resilience – particularly attractive.