Why new construction projects are making Puerto Rico’s climate disasters worse | Puerto Rico

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Jomary Ortega lives in Ciales, a town located in Puerto Rico’s central mountain range. To get to work and take her daughter to school, she takes PR-146, a highway built on land susceptible to landslides, resulting in a treacherous commute for locals.

But after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the island in September, Ortega says that much of the highway slid away, or was subsumed by tumbling rocks and mud. “I feared that the road would slide more and I would be a victim – and who would take care of my children?” Ortega said.

As an island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is extremely vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis – but some environmentalists say the island’s government is endangering the lives of people by greenlighting construction projects in geologically vulnerable areas.

In the 20th century, during Puerto Rico’s urbanization phase, a dense network of roads was expanded into the island’s hills and mountains, which contributed to an increased susceptibility to landslides. The highway Ortega takes to work has experienced landslides before, including during Hurricane Maria – and yet, it is still awaiting various repairs, according to a report made by the Department of Transportation and Public Works.

“When it rains heavily, I prefer to miss work to avoid a tragedy, and there are many neighbors in the same situation,” says Ortega. She notes that, even when the government does some repairs, the underlying problems are not solved.

Meanwhile, in cities and towns on the coasts, environmentalists and urbanists criticize the government’s repeated approval of construction projects in areas that merit heightened ecological protection – such as the construction of a new hotel in the town of Luquillo, near a wetland.

“For years, the government and relevant agencies have granted construction permits ignoring [their] impact on the population and nature,” says Pedro M Cardona Roig, a licensed architect, urbanist and planner known as El Urbanista.

The climate crisis disproportionately affects countries and territories like Puerto Rico, which have least contributed to it. Puerto Rico has long lobbied for greater resources from the US to protect its residents from intensifying storms and other extreme weather. The criticisms of Puerto Rico’s political leaders go hand-in-hand with the criticisms of the US and other wealthier countries: both seek to hold those in power accountable to the people they serve.

This dynamic is laid bare during climate emergencies, where hurricanes and other storms batter the island and lead to catastrophic damage. Without a reorganization of the Puerto Rican government’s priorities, experts fear that scenes like the ones after Hurricane Fiona are posed to repeat themselves.


Hurricane Fiona made immediately apparent just how weak the island’s infrastructure is: roads were stripped of pavement; landslides and floods overtook the mountainous regions. In the town of Cayey, a family had to be rescued from the second floor of their house with a boat and rope.

Within 72 hours of the storm making landfall, the municipalities of south-eastern Puerto Rico received between 18 and 31 inches of rain, according to AccuWeather and National Weather Service (NWS) figures. More than 426 people were evacuated in the town of Salinas, which received 25 inches of rain leading to unprecedented levels of flooding.

A gas station that was damaged by Hurricane Maria.
A gas station that was damaged by Hurricane Maria. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters

Cardona Roig argues that the government’s approval of new construction exacerbates the damage that storms like Fiona inflict on the island. In particular, he blames a new permit system rolled out in 2009. It was designed to be “agile and efficient” in order to “boost the economy”, says Cardona Roig, but in reality, it removed an important step in the oversight of new construction projects. He cites the case of Cayey, where the family had to be evacuated by boat, where construction continued despite the fact that the area is at a high risk of flooding.

New developments, especially housing, in such areas are also at greater risk when climate disasters strike. A report from 2020 counted more than 70,000 landslides caused by Hurricane Maria, mostly in mountainous areas; 22% of the towns on the island, home to half a million people, are in areas where the susceptibility to landslides is “very high”.

In these regions, owing to poverty and a lack of government aid and oversight, are hundreds of thousands of houses built informally by families themselves. The high cost of materials, the payment of tariffs, and the complexity of the permit processes are just some of the factors that restrict access to buildings formally. These homes are built without an evaluation of the land nor oversight of the construction process and its environmental impact. This becomes especially precarious when communities are built on the side of the island’s mountains, with homes teetering on columns built on uneven slopes.

Mayors have not learned from past disasters like the one in Mameyes in 1985. An impoverished population was allowed to occupy a steep area in Ponce, with a nearly 60% incline, for decades. Then Tropical Storm Isabel came, and 23in of rainfall caused a landslide that killed approximately 129 people.

Building illegally is a practice usually reserved for the poor, according to Carlos Tolentino in a report for the University of Puerto Rico’s Diálogo. But the divide between legal and informal construction no longer falls across social class lines. Even when builders have some money and economic power, they may skip soil studies or ignore code in order to spend less and avoid bureaucratic red tape.

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Because of this, housing complexes in various towns in Puerto Rico have been shown to have serious flaws. After Hurricane Maria, many homes in the touristy Ocean Park neighborhood were flooded and remained underwater for several weeks; previously in that area, mangroves were felled and lagoons were dried up, in order to make way for development. Also during Maria, many buildings in the expensive Palmas del Mar housing complex collapsed against the sustained winds and strong waves. There’s a pattern of ignoring the risks that come with breaking ground on various lands for new development. A housing complex in the town of Ceiba was partially damaged after a landslide caused by Hurricane Maria.

Experts such as geologists, environmentalists and NGOs have suggested it’s best to reduce the amount of construction occurring on the coastlines in order to ensure these build-outs are not exacerbating the effects of climate change. Sixty per cent of the island’s 3.2 million residents live on the coast, according to census data. Instead, the government has continued approving construction permits on the coasts, as reported by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. Construction permits on the island’s coasts increased by 29% during Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s first year in office.

Despite the evidence offered by Maria and now Fiona that there needs to be more oversight of construction projects in order to protect residents, municipalities and the local government continue to allow unsafe constructions – including those that require the removal of mangrove trees.

“Mangroves play a major role in protecting coastlines against flooding, wind, wave and erosion,” says Alcides L Morales-Pérez, a biologist and management coordinator for Para La Naturaleza, an environmental non-profit. He notes that mangroves act as filters absorbing pollutants, and are also home to hundreds of species of fish, as well as temporary habitats for many migratory birds. Leaves from the trees provide nutrients to the soil and can also act as fertilizer for other ecosystems.

Despite the vital role these trees play in local ecosystems, there has been an increase in mangrove deforestation in recent years – which contributed to worsening floods. In the southern municipality of Salinas, the removal of mangroves – along with a lack of maintenance along the area’s irrigation canals – worsened the effects of the 25 inches of rain that Fiona left; hundreds in the area were forced to evacuate from their homes.

“We cannot continue building in disharmony with nature,” says Morales-Pérez. “Deforestation for construction exacerbates flooding and soil erosion.”

Constructions that have been authorized on the coasts are mostly hotels, residences, or businesses. Very few are built using practices that will lessen the effects of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, or mitigate floods – such as hydraulic piles, artificial reefs, restoration of dunes and mangroves, or retaining walls.

The local government has also endorsed the development of a Fairfield Inn & Suites Hotel, part of the Marriott hotel chain, in Luquillo. According to specialists and community leaders, the hotel would affect a wetland in the east zone.

According to Puerto Rico’s 2015 Land Use Plan, the land on which the hotel will be built was granted special protections, which led to the project being stopped in 2016. However, construction started back up in 2019, when the classifications of land categories were modified.

The local government has continued to prioritize development – but the lack of clear and effective environmental policies around construction has only made Puerto Rico more vulnerable. The burden of this system will fall on the poor, unless something changes.

“We have to look to the future,” says Cardona Roig. “Flooding in a high-class condominium is not the same as flooding in a poor neighborhood, [where residents must] wait for the agencies to respond.”





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