Recovery From Cascading Disasters: La Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico

Despite a global pandemic, eight members were able to voluntarily provide recovery expertise to the municipality to help guide its future.

It has been over four years since Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, causing over 3,000 deaths, damaging over one million homes, and shutting down much of the island's electrical power for months. The process of funding, planning, and implementing community recovery has been challenging.

Governmental recovery actions have been unusually slow, due to a variety of political and bureaucratic reasons, limited capacity on the island to manage the scale of reconstruction, and the context of the island's 2016 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy requires all fiscal decisions to pass through the presidentially appointed Financial Management and Oversight Board for Puerto Rico.

Coupled with the series of earthquakes that struck the Municipality of Ponce, the municipal government decided that it needed to be more deliberate in identifying ways to use recovery funding to address both its current and pre-existing problems, particularly in La Playa de Ponce. The municipality asked APA for a Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) that could suggest strategic planning visions for La Playa to help guide recovery investments to maximize long-lasting benefits.


The colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. creates some unique challenges to the normal federal recovery governance model. As of November 2021, only $5 billion of FEMA public assistance funds (for repair of public facilities) had been disbursed, out of $26.1 billion obligated by the federal government.

And of the $19.9 billion in community development block grants obligated by Congress, only $0.4 billion had been paid to Puerto Rican entities. The slow flow of federal funds has been a problem, but it also presents an opportunity, as local governments and community organizations still have some time to identify needs and make a case for receiving some of the funds.


In January 2020 the Municipality of Ponce — the island's second largest metropolitan area — was developing its list of priority recovery projects, when southwestern Puerto Rico was struck by yet another disaster: a series of earthquakes that damaged many of Ponce's historic buildings and its waterfront boardwalk.

Particularly hard struck was Ponce's coastal barrio, La Playa de Ponce. As Ponce's historic port, located three miles from the city center, La Playa has a sense of identity as a unique and separate place, with its own cultural traditions and history.

La Playa also faced longstanding economic and environmental problems before the hurricane and earthquakes. As the island economy has declined over the past 15 years, so has port activity. La Playa, in a low-lying coastal location, also is subject to both coastal storms and flooding from much of the city's urban stormwater runoff.


The municipal government asked the volunteer team members to:

  • Create a strategic vision for accessing recovery funding
  • Revitalize the historic port area
  • Improve economically revitalizing the low-income port community, and
  • Advance further historic preservation and urban design efforts.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which struck shortly after Ponce submitted its request to APA, required the team to conduct its work entirely virtually — a first for any Community Planning Assistance Team.

Team Members

The team working with the municipality, included three Spanish speakers:

  • Rob Olshansky, FAICP, team leader
  • Larissa Brown, FAICP
  • David Early, FAICP
  • Juan Felipe Visser
  • John Houseal, FAICP
  • Devin Lavigne, FAICP
  • Julia Schnell
  • Veronica Soto, FAICP

The eight-member team began by conducting virtual meetings with 19 community stakeholders, who identified what they saw as La Playa's assets and needs. This virtual field work also included review of existing plans and relevant documents, explorations via maps and Google Streetview, online videos and news sources, presentations by students from the University of Puerto Rico and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico (PUCPR), and two technical sessions with municipal staff.

The team's goal was to identify modest investments that could leverage broader results, utilizing the strengths of existing community members. The team also sought consistency with the basic principles of the ReImagina island-wide plan for resilient recovery. The plan was created in 2018 by the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission, based on FEMA's National Disaster Recovery Framework and The Rockefeller Foundation's City Resilience Framework.


The report recommends using recovery funding as an opportunity for sustainable investment and growth of the local economy, relying on four general planning principles: Dignity, Placemaking, Economic Revitalization, and Sustainability.

Recovery investments should:

  • Reflect local needs as identified by local residents
  • Build on existing cultural and human assets
  • Jointly target human capital and infrastructure needs
  • Be economically and culturally sustainable, based on human and social capital
  • Be environmentally sustainable, emphasizing green infrastructure, natural systems, and resilience
  • Fund future operations and maintenance

Substantively, the proposals cover two major categories — empowering the community and investing in place. Empowering the community includes engaging community organizations and building capacity within the municipal government. Investing in place includes:

  • Developing green spaces
  • Enhancing transportation infrastructure
  • Repairing stormwater infrastructure
  • Rebuilding storm– and earthquake–damaged facilities in La Guancha and La Playa's historic center

Conducting an all–volunteer virtual field assessment was challenging considering the ongoing pandemic, an island with fragile infrastructure, and changes in political power at federal, island, and municipal levels. APA published the final report in September 2021, in both English and Spanish versions. The team felt that it was critical to publish a Spanish version so that it could be accessible to all members of the La Playa community.

This is part of an ongoing process, in a fluid policy environment. Experience and research tell us that post–disaster recovery is a complex process of multiple recovery actors seeking to harness large funding streams in an information-starved decision environment.

We hope that the report's planning concepts can help shed some light that can guide Ponce in its efforts. The report is now in the hands of the municipality and members of the community. The municipality can find it useful in shaping its recovery funding requests, and community organizations and neighborhood leaders can use its concepts to support their community improvement requests to the municipality.

Recovery Planning Concepts: LaPlaya de Ponce, Puerto Rico

Recover Planning Concepts: LaPlaya de Ponce, Puerto Rico cover

Community Planning Assistance Team Report

We recommend using recovery funding as an opportunity for sustainable investment and growth of the local economy, relying on four general planning principles: Dignity, Placemaking, Economic Revitalization, and Sustainability.

Top image: Oquendo/wikipediacommons/CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Robert Olshansky, FAICP, PhD, was the team lead for the volunteer planning group and is an emeritus professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois.

January 26, 2022

By Robert Olshansky, FAICP