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Perfect Storm: Puerto Rico’s Hurricane History and Lessons for Resilience

12/04 Monday | 12pm

NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, the Cities, Cultures, and Climate Change Working Group, and the Urban Democracy Lab invite you to join us for a lunchtime discussion with Ingrid Olivo and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro on the history of hurricanes in the Caribbean and the present humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

Since Hurricane Maria hit in September, an unforeseen humanitarian crisis has been unfolding in Puerto Rico, a paradigmatic example of underdevelopment in a multi-risk prone region, as well as a laboratory and showcase of United States policy-making. Olivo’s research, a longitudinal and multi-case study of hurricanes in Puerto Rico from 1899 to 1956, reveals that this crisis is essentially history repeating itself. Basic lessons from the past have been disregarded and the process of rebuilding has been bound in a vicious cycle of inadequate approaches. What can the past teach us about achieving future resilience?

Puerto Rico and the larger Caribbean—which has figured in most Americans’ minds, over recent decades, as a place to vacation— has been transformed into a landscape of anxiety since Maria, says Jelly-Schapiro. The year in which the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords may turn out to be the one in which we started to view climate change not as an abstract worry but as a concrete fact, the year in which we learned to habitually gaze with worry at late summer clouds forming over the Atlantic. In the Caribbean, it’s been ever thus. When will the U.S. start paying a different kind of attention to these islands—not as mere playgrounds or battlegrounds, but as reconnaissance posts from which to look for encroaching dangers and be ready to quickly act to protect and save lives?

Ingrid Olivo, originally from El Salvador, is an Urban Studies Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow and University College London Associate Staff. She has 17 years of professional development experience combining policy/advisory work, research, and teaching with a specialization in Urban Planning. Trained as an architect in her hometown, San Salvador (UCA), Ingrid continued her graduate studies in London (UCL) and New York (Columbia University), where she finished a Ph.D. focused on hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World, and the co-editor of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge, he has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and The Nation, among many other publications. His recent essay for The New York Review of Books on hurricanes and history in the Caribbean, and what Maria’s awful aftermath in Puerto Rico portends for us all, is readable here.

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