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Puerto Rico 2.0: how Hurricane Maria could save Puerto Rico

While Maria has set Puerto Rico back, this disaster should and could actually catalyze the rebirth of Puerto Rico in the long run. Even before the hurricane hit, Puerto Rico was sliding backwards. Now, with so much of the island destroyed, there is no choice but to move forward and rebuild, better than before.
A man cycling on a Toa Alta road, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept 24. The island is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello. Crédito: RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP / Getty Images

As a Hispanic American of Puerto Rican descent, I watched with a very personal sense of impending loss as one weather forecast after another confirmed Hurricane Maria was tracking for a direct hit on Puerto Rico.

In the days and hours leading up to the Maria, the NHCLC got to work mobilizing our U.S. member churches and local Puerto Rican chapter leadership, preparing emergency aid resources and personnel. Unfortunately, as we all now know, the outcome has been even more dire than we’d feared.

One of the main reasons why the storm took such a devastating toll is that Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion of debt has long saddled the government with impossible choices. When it came to basic infrastructure maintenance, utilities such as power, water and waste have been in desperate need of repair for years. Unemployment was skyrocketing and with little job prospects on the island, Puerto Rico was suffering from a mass exodus of the professional class seeking opportunity on the mainland. This created a downward pull on tax revenues which exacerbated an already bleak financial situation.

And now, Puerto Rico is in complete ruin. So much so, the Washington Post headline, quoting Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, read, “Hurricane Maria set Puerto Rico back decades.”

While Maria has certainly set Puerto Rico back, this disaster should and could actually catalyze the rebirth of Puerto Rico in the long run. Even before the hurricane hit, Puerto Rico was sliding backwards. Now, with so much of the island destroyed, there is no choice but to move forward and rebuild, and to do so stronger, better, and more imaginatively than before.

There are three main areas where the aftermath of Maria could result in in what I am calling, Puerto Rico 2.0: Infrastructure, Employment, Political Unity.

This is Puerto Rico’s opportunity to reimagine itself, to modernize, and to dream boldly about what the future might look like. As the Trump Administration directs the federal government to free up financial resources to rebuild, these efforts, made in conjunction with local officials, must be treated as a de facto Marshall Plan, the framework applied to rebuilding Europe after World War II. The Marshall Plan had the dual goals of not only rebuilding streets, buildings and bridges, but also restoring the very economic foundations of Western Europe.

The same principles must be applied to Puerto Rico. Wind, solar and other green energy technologies can be built to replace and supplement derelict power plants, lowering the soaring costs of energy on the island. Meanwhile innovations in water treatment, sanitation, fiber and telecommunications can lead to other lasting improvements.

This rebuilding effort also has the potential to improve employment prospects on the island. Rebuilding what’s been destroyed will require manpower and according to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of Puerto Rico sits around 11.5%, more than double the national average. While this has been bad news for local residents in recent years, this is good news for mainland companies who will need available workers to build and maintain new infrastructure projects. This labor force can be trained up in new and emerging technologies, marking a new industrial revolution for Puerto Rico that slows or even reverses Puerto Rico’s brain drain.

Politically too, this is an opportunity to unify Puerto Rico’s government that has spent much of the last decade divided on the issue of statehood. There is now one great test more pressing and immediate than any other standing before the leaders of Puerto Rico – to rebuild their home and restore their way of life. This unifying mission can bring representatives from both sides of this great debate together.

And finally, if Maria is to truly become the catalyst for Puerto Rico 2.0, much of that work will happen through the church. Puerto Ricans, taken as a whole, are a people of great faith and in the face of so much loss, it’s the faith of the people that is leading them through this crucible.

As part of my role as president of the NHCLC, I work with some of the largest and most vibrant faith communities in Puerto Rico including our local NHCLC chapter led by Dr. William Hernandez and Rev. Israel Bermudez and churches like Iglesia de Dios M I. Churches themselves serve as natural community hubs and these men and women are already assuming even more prominent leadership roles, performing admirably at the nexus of aid, resource and need.

I have witnessed the resiliency of Puerto Rico’s spirit firsthand. It’s my heritage, and, like all Puerto Ricans, we are proud of who we are and where we come from. Maria will not diminish the island or who we are as a people. In the same way, we cannot allow this natural disaster to set us back decades, that’s simply unacceptable.

This moment in history should instead serve as the great reset that catapults Puerto Rico decades ahead.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He has been named by CNN and Fox News as “the leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement."