The number of people seeking shelter outdoors in southwest Puerto Rico reveals a new dimension for an old problem our island faces on the way to reconstruction: Puerto Rico needs safe and affordable housing.

The painful scenes of people sleeping in outdoor shelters reflect, among other situations, the sense of insecurity that Puerto Ricans, particularly our brothers and sisters in the southwestern area have been experiencing since we were abruptly awakened by the 6.4 earthquake last Tuesday.

People are afraid. Many Puerto Ricans lost their homes to the earthquakes. Others don´t feel safe in their cracked homes. We must ensure that they have a safe home. Like them, there are still Puerto Ricans living under tarps waiting for assistance.

But short-term action will not solve the underlying problem. According to estimates, more than half of the homes on the island lack building permits, which could make them more vulnerable. The reasons vary and the state has to understand the particularities. Some, although modern, may have been built without following current building codes, due to lack of resources or because it was usual to do so.

Other houses were built decades ago with different public policies. For example, before 1975, building outside areas listed as urban did not require permits. The agreement back then was that people in rural areas could build according to their means and criteria. Building as a family or among neighbors was an integral part of the government's “Esfuerzo Propio, Ayuda Mutua” program for two decades - from 1940 to 1960. At that time, the government encouraged communities to join forces to make it easier for each family to have a home of their own.

Public planning and housing policies have been formulated according to specific contexts and their respective visions of the future. They were generally based on the knowledge and technologies available. For more than a century, Puerto Rico lived without experiencing an earthquake in more than a century. But now, it´s here, amid the reconstruction process following the devastation triggered by Hurricane María, it would be inexcusable to plan without considering this situation. The seismic activity of our region is one of the many nature´s threats we are exposed to.

Planning is prevention. The challenge is to define how to manage risks. Up to now, the culture of development has sought to modify risks, changing nature to adapt it to economic and social dynamics. However, this approach requires continuous effort and investment to withstand natural events.

As humanity has become more aware of the impact of its activities, we have better understood the need for a more systemic approach to development. We now acknowledge the interdependence between people and nature. This vision proposes adapting to risk as to the most cost-effective and wise option. Furthermore, adapting new development to conditions that pose risks, avoids exposing people to such risks.

Puerto Rico will have millions of dollars in federal funds in the coming years to build a Puerto Rico capable of withstanding and quickly overcoming natural disasters, such as hurricanes and other extreme climate change events. There are significant allocations intended for planning. They must be used with a sustainable future vision and with a strong sense of ethics. Now that we feel the direct impact of our seismic vulnerability, design and construction calculations must include that factor.

The inescapable lessons from the force of nature in recent years outline the direction for building the new Puerto Rico. They provide guidelines for the design of fair social policies that allow people to enjoy safe and affordable homes. The conditions to undertake this task seem appropriate. And to this end, the island counts on scientific data and technological advances that help make better-informed decisions and also professional resources willing to join the efforts and bring their expertise to build a safe Puerto Rico from its foundations.


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