By Ivan Robles
May 1, 2019
Commonly cited as the areas most affected by the Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Puerto Rico and Dominica found themselves in extremely difficult circumstances as they pursued measures to safeguard their populations and begin largescale recovery. The storm ravaged both islands, destroying ninety-percent of the buildings in Dominica, wrecking Puerto Rico’s already fragile power grid, and ultimately causing a long chain of continued natural and infrastructural issues that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Dominica and Puerto Rico share many similarities as two lush islands in the Caribbean with deep colonial legacies and a strong reliance on tourism. Now, they share an experience of disaster. Given these parallels, how have the two islands comparatively approached recovery and development? How have their shared or distinct histories and modern sociopolitical standings influenced the types of development pursued and their rates of success?
According to sociologist Ronald Fernandez, Puerto Rico is the “oldest colony on earth.” Despite centuries of diplomatic discussion, the contention of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and sovereignty remains a point of contention on the transnational playing field. The question of Puerto Rico’s global identity began with its sewing into the U.S. national fabric as a spoil of war following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War and subsequent Treaty of Paris in 1898. Dominica had its own volatile history during the colonial era, switching between Spanish, French, and British rule before achieving independence in 1978. However, independence did little to solve the problems stemming from centuries of colonial exploitation and economic development, and the island continued to confront issues of political and economic instability. This instability was compounded by severe damage from hurricanes in 1979 and 1980. In the decades since, Dominica has gradually worked towards the development of a robust political and economic system, attempting to compensate for its long colonial past. Both Dominica and Puerto Rico have had their development stunted due to their shared status as former European colonies. However, as Dominica strives to solidify its identity as an independent country, Puerto Rico continues to be deterred by its relationship to the United States. For over a century Puerto Rico has been the vestigial organ of the U.S., its “colony” title simply swapped with “unincorporated territory” with no real plan of ever granting the island the full benefits and legitimacy of statehood. Puerto Ricans currently possess “equitable” rights to that of their mainland counterparts, such as paying Social Security taxes and receiving welfare benefits, however they do not pay federal taxes (and thus do not see the revenue benefits of these taxes), nor do they vote in presidential elections or have a representative congressperson with voting power. Dominica and Puerto Rico are thus cousins in the Caribbean with distinct histories of sovereignty and structural barriers that impact the ways the two have tackled their shared confrontation with Hurricane Maria.
Roadblocks to Recovery
Dominica and Haiti face similar hurdles in development, namely their unstable colonial infrastructure, the slow actions of their governments, their crippled economies, and difficulty securing international assistance. Puerto Rico has buckled under the weight of a multi-billion dollar debt for decades. As part of an effort to regain control of Puerto Rico’s spiraling economy, the U.S. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016. PROMESA established an oversight board of seven people (referred to as la junta de control by Puerto Ricans) dedicated to implementing economic restructuring plans for the island’s $74 billion debt and $49 billion pension obligations. PROMESA served to provide the U.S. federal government with ultimate control over Puerto Rico’s budget and policy measures for debt restructuring. In March 2017, prior to Hurricane Maria, the Board presented a ten-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico, which included acute austerity measures, the bulk of which included cuts to education, health care, and general government spending. Both these cuts and the fact that much of the resulting savings would go to repay creditors have been major subjects of protest among the populace. It is still unclear if and how these plans will be adjusted following the hurricane and disputes between the local and federal governments continue, causing further stagnation in desperately needed reform.
In Dominica, “disaster profiles” that assess disaster impact (e.g. economic cost, main causes of mortality and morbidity, acute and foreseeable needs, response quality) have listed the country’s key priorities as large-scale rehabilitation for damaged water and sanitation systems, long-term shelter options, agricultural rehabilitation, healthcare provision (especially mental health), and a rebuilding electrical and telecommunications networks. Following Maria, 43 out of 44 water systems were non-functional, which severely disrupted production, manufacturing and tourism activities on the island. In regards to shelter, nearly all of the structures on the island were damaged, displacing many and disproportionately affecting the island’s most vulnerable, such as the Kalinago community. This has not only impacted the survival of the relatively small Kalinago population, but also greatly contributed to their already-prevalent movement off the island to seek better opportunities. These priorities are paralleled in Puerto Rico, particularly the need to bolster its delicate power grid, which continues to cause power outages to this day.
The following images provide visual comparisons of damage and recovery in Puerto Rico and Dominica:
An aerial view of the flooded neighborhood of Juana Matos in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Cataño, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 22, 2017 versus an aerial view of Juana Matos six months after. Obvious flooding has since subsided, but note the blue tarps that remain on the roofs.
The small village of Dublanc on the west coast of Dominica immediately after and one year after Hurricane Maria. Despite the initial devastation, much of the island’s lush greenery has returned.
A road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, immediately following Maria and six months afterwards. Damaged roads like these were major obstacles in distributing resources to people throughout the island.
These photos visually demonstrate the devastation of Hurricane Maria, converting both Dominica and Puerto Rico, islands known for their lush greenery, into brown, flooded terrains of terror. This destruction, coupled with prolonged infrastructural issues like the fact that 90% of the population lacked electricity in the months following the hurricane in Dominica, contributed to the large outflow of people on both islands. Puerto Rico is projected to have lost more than 10% of its population over the past decade, and this trend is expected to spike exorbitantly in the coming years as a result of the storm conditions. In the first few weeks following Maria, over 30,000 had fled the island and an estimated half a million people are said to have left the island total.
Puerto Rico and Dominica face interesting dilemmas when it comes to their international profiles. Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory has made recovery difficult in the inadequate response of the United States to address the island’s plethora of concerns. Additionally, international aid has been relatively lacking due to this intimate relationship, where intervention in Puerto Rico would carry certain political consequence. In contrast, Dominica has seen a variety of international aid, from the United Nations, the World Bank, Britain, France, and more. However, this aid has been sporadic and dependent on the humanitarian inclinations of the respective entities. Dominica’s lack of formal political links to a richer country has served to limit their access to constant, single-source support.
Schuyler Esprit, a resident of Dominica and founder of the Create Caribbean Research Institute, described these development dichotomies in the months following Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. According to Esprit, soon after the hurricanes Dominica saw an influx of foreign aid that assisted with recovery and rebuilding efforts, including from the Clinton Foundation. Involvement from entities like European aid programs, religious organizations, and the United Nations Development Program contributed to at least fifty groups on the ground immediately following Maria that allowed for Dominica to target essential aspects of recovery, such as getting their electrical grid up and running. However, upon visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico about three months following the storms, Esprit was surprised to see that the island had yet to undergo the same level of visible recovery that Dominica had. Despite the expectation that Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States would afford it direct access to resources that Dominica lacked, the reality in San Juan seemed to be total inactivity. Traversing Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s most popular tourist area, Esprit saw no visible construction and any activity of ongoing rebuilding work seemed entirely absent—“It was at a standstill.” Even the hotel she stayed in, one of the most prominent on the island, had yet to have its power restored. Esprit admits that Dominica dealt with its fair share of hardship, noting that the island looked like a war zone following the storm with helicopters tracing across the sky. However, the sound of helicopters signaled activity. In contrast, a deep silence had fallen over Puerto Rico as residents experienced each day as if it were the day after the storm. Some difference must of course be attributed to the varied scale of recovery required by both islands. Dominica is a 289 square mile island with 73,000 inhabitants, a notable size difference compared to Puerto Rico’s 3,515 square miles and 3.5 million inhabitants. Yet, even when scaling for size and population, Esprit believes that Puerto Rico has experienced an evident lag in its proportional speed of recovery.
The diversity of foreign aid to Dominica has its drawbacks. Namely, Dominicans are often given little direct control over how and where funds are applied. For example, the Chinese government provided funds to a school in Mahaut, a small town in southwestern Dominica, in order to help with its rebuilding efforts. However, the funds were only allocated to repair the roofs of the school buildings, meaning that these buildings would continue to lack infrastructural resources, such as electricity, and intellectual resources, such as faculty. In addition to misdirected external resources, there is the additional issue of disaster-stricken areas being unable to distribute the resources they do need. For example, in the months following the hurricane, thousands of containers of supplies remained stuck at the Port of San Juan, with Puerto Ricans unable to access and distribute them due to many of the roads on the island being washed out or blocked by debris. This resulted in prolonged shortages of food, fuel, and water for millions of residents on the island. An additional obstacle to the shipping of resources to Puerto Rico was the Jones Act, a federal policy that made imports to Puerto Rico astronomically more expensive due tariffs that were charged on American vessels coming to the island. According to a U.S. General Accountability Report, the Jones Act caused a $17 billion loss to the island’s economy from 1990 through 2010, resulting in the island’s prices rising by 35 percent in that period. The Act continued to be a major impediment following Maria, acting as a barrier to bilateral assistance from foreign powers. Whereas Dominica received assistance from Caribbean neighbors like Cuba and Jamaica, this type of regional outreach was deflected by the Jones Act, which was only temporarily waved by President Trump after facing significant pressure in Congress.
These types of interference speak to recurrent issues of aid provided without local input in regions struck by disaster. It is the residents of these areas, grappling with the daily impacts and shortages caused by the disaster event, that must be consulted when pursuing recovery measures. This lack of consideration of the people’s voices supplements a suspicion of foreign intervention that has persisted since the colonial era. Disaster undeniably provides an opportunity for development in affected areas, but in the Caribbean “development” carries a connotation of suspicion. As government and corporate interests set roots on the islands with the guise of revitalizing its resources and recovery efforts, locals are concerned that these entities are seeking to take advantage of the region’s vulnerable status to initiate self-favoring models of development and further business and political interests. This has already been witnessed in Puerto Rico when hedge funds purchased discounted bonds after the island defaulted on its debt—a debt that these creditors largely created in lobbying for and utilizing the tax exemptions and bonds Puerto Rico was forced to offer to manage its crumbling economy.
Build Back Better
Similar to Haiti and other areas affected by disaster, the initial shock of Maria’s devastation has given way to plans to “build back better.” In Dominica, the government has begun to require that builders use heavier roofing materials at steeper angles, intended to protect against future storms. In addition to rebuilding the tourism scene, Dominican communities are being rebuilt in increasingly sheltered and less-flood-prone areas. Community shelters have also learned to coordinate effectively by necessity, contributing to a consolidated network that could provide supplies and support as part of rapid response in the future. In Puerto Rico, another crucial approach of preparing for future disasters has been understanding the circumstances behind the deaths that directly or indirectly occurred due to the hurricane. Despite initial projected figures of 64 and 31 hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico and Dominica, respectively, their governments have since admitted that these numbers are actually much higher. For example, records from Puerto Rico’s government show huge spikes in deaths related to sepsis, pneumonia, diabetes and Alzheimer’s following the hurricane, along with general spikes among youth and the elderly. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of diabetes and Alzheimer’s deaths rose 24 and 23 percent, respectively. The highest surge was in deaths from sepsis, which jumped 50 percent between 2016 and 2017. These spikes were largely due to the inability of the island to bolster its collapsed health care and electrical systems, which were already suffering from protracted infrastructural issues prior to the storm.
In Dominica, similar issues are being confronted with a single word: resilience. Less than a year after Maria, the small island made the big commitment towards becoming the world’s first climate-resilient nation. The Climate Resilient Execution Agency for Dominica (CREAD) was conceived shortly after the storm by government officials as a force tasked with determining the best practices of disaster defense across all sectors (i.e. roads, buildings, codes, energy grids, water management, etc.) Describing the catalyst of the decisions as a “survivability issue,” Dominica’s foreign minister, Francine Baron, stated, “We need to incorporate resilience in everything that we do moving forward, from infrastructure to our economy to our social sectors.” International support from the United Nations, Canada and the U.K. has stepped in to support the project, helping engineer sturdier neighborhoods, rewrite building codes, and carry out a national shift to solar power. In Puerto Rico, ambitious plans are also being drawn up, such as the island’s recent commitment to shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Also citing Hurricane Maria as the stimulus for the decision, the Puerto Rican government has enlisted the help of renewable energy groups to develop an alternative system to replace the island’s faulty electric grid. In the wake of Maria, several companies and organizations worked with community members to install solar panels at sites like hospitals and community centers, demonstrating that renewable energy was the most appropriate strategy for providing the island and it residents with immediate and large scale power. As a region increasingly threatened by the threat of climate change and debilitated infrastructure, the Caribbean must continue to develop novel and environmentally-focused programs, potentially taking advantage of the development opportunities provided by disaster to do so.
Dominicans and Puerto Ricans share a common history as denizens of disaster. As both islands continue to rebuild and recover, it is important to consider the ways in which this shared confrontation with hurricanes Irma and Maria have been dealt with and how the past two years have provided an opportunity to rethink development. As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico has found itself in a complex situation, forced to coordinate with a ruling power that has long neglected its needs in favor of profit. As an independent country, Dominica has seen the benefits of diverse foreign aid, but struggles with an inability to determine where much of the aid is directed nor its consistency. Regardless, both islands have made impressive strides in the quest for recovery since the hurricanes touched land in 2017. In comparing the recovery tracts of the two islands and considering the volatile history of the Caribbean, various factors of colonial legacy, sovereignty, economics, and politics can be weighed to determine which limit or benefit development and recovery in the region. With this in mind, both islands may grow from the ashes of disaster into more resilient and more resistant versions of their former selves, prepared to reclaim their narratives and future trajectories.
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 Images created with Juxtapose feature by Knight Lab.
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