On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm. The hurricane devastated the island, cutting off electricity to all its residents and causing shortages of food and clean water everywhere. An average Puerto Rican spent 84 days without power, 68 days without potable water, and 41 days without cell service—and in some cases, much longer. The effect on Puerto Rican families and the island’s infrastructure will take many years to heal. But as I learned on a recent trip to the island, some of its communities also offer lessons in how to build resilience against an increasingly unpredictable climate.
The realities of climate change are being felt everywhere, and especially in the Arctic, which is warming up to three times faster than the global average. These changes pose threats to food security, infrastructure, and traditional ways of life. As communities around the world and in Canada’s Arctic adapt to climate change and work to mitigate its impacts, it is more important than ever to share knowledge across national and cultural boundaries.
In October, I traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico to chair the Joint Public Advisory Commission’s (JPAC) meeting, Community-based Responses to Disaster Resilience. The JPAC was created in 1994 when the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation came into force alongside the North American Free Trade Agreement. This agreement is the only existing mechanism to promote and foster cooperation and collaboration between Canada, the United States and Mexico on continental environmental and sustainability issues.
The event attracted hundreds of residents from across the island, including community leaders, local NGOs, students, and government officials. We had a raw, unscripted discussion that brought out stories of trauma and disenfranchisement and highlighted tangible examples of community-based resilience and empowerment. Indigenous leaders from the Haida Nation, Walpole Island First Nation, and Tohono O’odham Nation, who had been brought to share their experiences, were an essential part of the conversation. Using their own histories, they linked a community’s ability to overcome disasters with the importance of having a shared ethic of responsibility and sense of stewardship for a place.
This insight became clear to us the next day, as the JPAC traveled to the mountain community of Toro Negro. After Hurricane Maria struck, the community was without power and potable drinking water for nine months. It took weeks for people just to reach the main road and get basic supplies. During the immediate aftermath of the storm, people were forced to go to the river’s edge to exchange information by shouting messages to people on the opposite side.
Yet this place has turned extreme hardship into a story of resilience and inspiration. They started their own Community Foundation. They took control of their power generation through a cooperative solar project, their water security through a mountain aqueduct, their mobility by building hanging bridges across the river, and their future by galvanizing youth to be a central part of these community projects.
In Toro Negro we sat in an outdoor community centre and listened to community members discuss energy security, water access, and youth engagement. During this exchange, I asked “what has given the community of Toro Negro the ability to get back on its feet quickly while many other communities in Puerto Rico are still struggling to do so?” The answer was simple: before Hurricane Maria, the community of Toro Negro already saw themselves as a unified group of people who shared a common set of values and responsibility for each other and their community.
The global issues that we are facing, from climate change to ocean plastic to the devastating impacts of extreme weather events, make it seem like answers are nowhere to be found or too complex to realize. What became clear to me on this trip was that the answers to many of the world’s pressing environmental problems are not mysteries. The answers are where they have always been—in our communities, in our natural world, and inside each and every one of us.
This is not to say that progress is easy or guaranteed, or that extreme weather events will stop damaging communities. But I have learned that the extent to which we can maintain and develop strong bonds both within communities and between one another will help determine how well we respond to crisis.