Puerto Rico's Environment One Year After Hurricane Maria
In October 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. On October 25, Maryland Carey Law hosted the symposium “In the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria: A Year in the Life of Puerto Rico.” Environmental Law Program Director, Robert Percival, moderated the opening panel on “The Storm, the Land, and Environmental Law.”
Marisabel Rodriguez, a renowned landscape architect from Puerto Rico, began the panel by tracing the path of the hurricane and showing photos of its devastating consequences. She noted that in one 8-hour period Hurricane Maria dumped more than half as much rain on Puerto Rico as it normally receives in an entire year causing flooding, mudslides, and the collapse of critical infrastructure.
Luis E. Rodriguez Rivera, professor of environmental law from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law, described how Hurricane Maria exposed critical defects in Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, which lacked the capacity to meet needs of the island’s vulnerable population even before the hurricane hit. He noted that the island has inadequate critical systems both in the private and public sectors including an energy sector heavily dependent on imported oil. Professor Rodriguez attributed much of the problem to poor planning and corruption. He presented stunning data showing the weakness of the federal response to Hurricane Maria compared to the response after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston despite the fact that thousands of people died in Puerto Rico while only 88 deaths were attributed to Hurricane Harvey.
Maria Toledo, a Puerto Rican civil engineer, examined how illegal construction, inadequate building codes, and the failure to enforce construction standards contributed to the carnage created by the hurricane. She noted that Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $95 billion in damage to an island that already was suffering from severe economic problems. Because Puerto Rico is likely to face future hurricanes, Toledo stressed that it is important to build a new culture of resiliency and to educate builders and residents concerning the importance of building codes and construction inspections.
Another highlight of the symposium was a luncheon talk by Malte Oronoz Rodriguez, Chief Justice of Puerto Rico. She was presented with the IMPACTO award by the Latinx Law Students Association in a ceremony at the close of the symposium.