Disaster Relief and Resiliency: Hurricane Maria

On the order of $43 billion of damages were dealt with Puerto Rico (Planning Board of Puerto Rican Government, 2018), which has not fully recovered and continues to lack federal aid. This cohort challenge is designed to engage students in the development of pathways towards resilient responses for disaster relief efforts. This will be done in the context of Puerto Rico, leveraging several previously initiated efforts targeting underserved communities near the capital city of San Juan. Students will investigate background cultural, political, and social factors that preceded disaster-related events. Lessons learned should be applicable more widely to similar disasters in other regions around the world. Students will be trained in the assessment of the viability of potential social and technological solutions responding to current challenges for the local societies after the disaster. Students will work with local communities, aid organizations, and peer institutions in the identification and implementation of resilient responses. Students will document their assessments providing a prioritized action plan for future development efforts. 


Efforts associated with this cohort challenge are supported by parallel, student-led efforts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Thus, potential deliverables developed via this cohort challenge may dovetail with prior ideas identified by students with the effort. Analogously, this effort may spawn future effort. Here we provide a short list of potential areas that may be considered via this cohort challenge—which have been vetted by local stakeholders as potentially viable solutions which they would advocate action. The advisors of this cohort challenge will work collaboratively with you to select a reasonable challenge that will leverage skills offered by all members of the team. The overarching conflict for this cohort challenge, and indeed much of the effort surrounding all such disaster relief projects, will be in balancing short-term outcomes with long-term efforts towards the establishment of resilient infrastructures that are in fact better than those that preceded storm events (Figure 1). So, for example, your cohort challenge might consider any of the following, or a related product of your own devising, with the approval of your advisors.


  • Identification of design considerations and recommendations for resilient and distributed infrastructures In island communities, like Puerto Rico, food, energy, and water are the first to be lost, and only after extensive, long-term efforts are such infrastructures improved. To combat the lack of resiliency of today’s infrastructure, there is a clamor for increased use of distributed systems for primary production of drinking water (e.g. extracting groundwater and rainwater harvesting), development and management of community gardens, off-grid electricity production, or stormwater management. What are the design considerations and recommendations that would govern the development of such infrastructures? How would we certify that these infrastructures would be more resilient than pre-storm and extant systems?
  • Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Management Plans Pathways for accessing Federal funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or many federal agencies often requires preparation and submission of key plans. Notably among these are the “Economic Development and Recovery Plans” and the “Disaster Recovery Action Plan,” both key components for Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Management Plans. Such plans are organized expected to be prepared multi-jurisdictionally, and local communities must inject themselves into this process to ensure their key needs are met. This would require establishment of a prioritized agenda for each jurisdiction. Without direct support for planning and capacity-building, these communities seem unlikely to benefit much or at all from top-down initiatives supported by FEMA and HUD. How can a prioritized agenda be prepared that would be reflective of stakeholder short-term and long-term needs? How can local communities inject their ideas into multi-jurisdictional plans for development?

    Figure 1. Model timeline for recovery from disaster with four overlapping phases of recovery-related activities (emergency, restoration, replacement reconstruction, and major reconstruction), adapted from (Kates, 1977; Olshansky & Johnson, 2016) The length of these development stages cause major challenges for actors seeking to provide value to communities.


Luis F. Rodríguez
Anna-Maria Marshall

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Students will learn, gain and demonstrate their understanding of globally relevant issues where problem-solving can contribute towards tangible, context-sensitive, and resilient solutions.
  • Students will demonstrate their understanding of the political, cultural, social issues preceding recent events in Puerto Rico, and how they may affect potential solutions.
  • Students will document their observations of the current state of Puerto Rico, its citizens, and its infrastructure, identifying current challenges for recovery.
  • Students will assess and prioritize the viability of potential social and technological solutions responding to current challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
  • Students will draft action plans for communities and students groups seeking to provide service towards collaborating communities while in the country.
  • Students will produce a product demonstrating their contribution towards resilient short and long term solutions in the wake of Hurricane Maria.


This challenge is one of several challenges offered during the 2019/2020 academic year through an NSF Funded project, “The INFEWS-ER: A Virtual Resource Center Enabling Graduate Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems”. This project is led by Luis Rodriguez, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, and a partnership of faculty from several other land grant universities. Members of the cohort who complete the challenge will receive travel support to present their work at the Annual INFEWS-ER Symposium to occur in March 2018. Students who continue to engage with the INFEWS-ER may qualify via an application for support at FEW-ture Faculty fellows who will provide learning modules to be added to the INFEWS-ER based on their experiences within this Cohort Challenge.

The INFEWS-ER project addresses the need for today’s academic and business professionals to address wicked challenges such as those at the nexus of food, energy, and water. Successful professionals will need both the technical and power skills (interdisciplinary skills) critical to high performing and diverse teams needed for tackling these wicked challenges. This cohort challenge will develop young scientists capable of applying “team science” for engaging multiple disciplines in addressing a challenge that considers historical and current conditions from various perspectives. The cohort challenge will build analytical skills and critical thinking techniques that go beyond this specific challenge.

Cohort Meetings

The cohort challenge will begin mid-October and conclude by May. A weekly 2-h meeting schedule will be agreed upon by the cohort participants and advisors, recognizing the differences in semesters, holidays and other class commitments for the various universities represented by team members.

We are designing this to be roughly equivalent to a 3 credit hour course for those on a semester system (4.5 credit hours for those on a trimester system). We encourage students to work with their advisor to build this into the student’s academic plans as a 3-credit hour special problems course. A full course syllabus and description is available for documentation requirements.

Course material will be delivered through synchronous and asynchronous activities. Web meetings will provide synchronous learning. Near the conclusion of the cohort challenge, the cohort will assemble for a two to a three-day symposium for additional learning opportunities and to finalize the proposed products resulting from this effort. Symposium travel expenses will be paid by the NSF project funding.

Tentative Schedule

Week 1 Orientation and High-Performance Teaming
Week 2 Past Projects
Week 3 Stakeholder Web conferences
Week 4 Establishing and Maintaining Accountability
Week 5 Disasters, Their Many Types, Their Prevalence, and Modes of Recovery
Week 6 Stakeholder Web conferences
Week 7 Problem Solving in Context
Week 8 Understanding Stakeholders
Week 9 Stakeholder Web conferences
Week 10 Communicating Science and Stakeholder Engagement
Week 11 Systems Thinking
Week 12 Stakeholder Web conferences
Week 13 Student Led Discussions and Systems Thinking
Week 14 Resilient Design
Week 15 Stakeholder Web conferences
Week 16 INFEWS-ER Symposium Presentations
Week 17 Student Led Discussions on Project Closure


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