natural disasters

Strengthening Trust and Capacity: Rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, 2017–2023

Kate Johnston
Focus Area(s)
Country of Reform

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, it devastated the island’s already fragile infrastructure. The power grid, old and poorly maintained, collapsed. Communications systems, the water supply, and many roads, schools, and homes also suffered severe damage. The estimated cost of repair was US$98 billion. To coordinate effective recovery and reconstruction efforts and manage federal funding, the Puerto Rican government established a central agency, the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, later known as COR3. Reconstruction got off to a slow start because of limited capacity, fiscal austerity, and US federal government procedures that assumed local financial liquidity and the ability to come to rapid agreement on the estimated costs of proposed projects. Gradually, as levels of trust between levels of government grew, procedural innovation enabled funds to flow to municipalities and other recipients, which then contracted for repair or rebuilding under COR3’s supervision. By late 2023, six years into the reconstruction effort, roughly 10,600 projects were in progress and Puerto Rico had spent $1.8 billion of the US$23.4 billion the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had awarded. US$11.3 billion awaited FEMA approval before expenditure could begin. Separately, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development had committed over $20 billion in disaster recovery and mitigation grants and disbursed about a quarter of that amount. The first five years of the recovery, 2018-2023 offered important lessons about ways to balance speed, quality, cost, integrity, equity, and alignment with strategic priorities during major postdisaster reconstruction.

Kate Johnston drafted this case study based on interviews conducted with government officials and civic leaders in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., from July through October 2023.  Matthew Lillehaugen and Alina Dunlap contributed to the research. Alina Dunlap authored the addendum. Case published March 2024.