(IAP ’17) Lily Bui, PhD

Lily Bui (PhD, Urban Studies & Planning)

Lily will be working with the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources Office of Coastal Management. She will be helping create materials for climate adaptation strategies in several Puerto Rico municipalities as well as assisting with the evaluation of ongoing pilot programs with different partner organizations. She will also be doing independent doctoral research on disaster risk reduction and risk communication through hurricane early warning systems.

Blog Post 3

January 30, 2017

Community meeting about climate change, Loiza, Puerto Rico

Community meeting about climate change, Loiza, Puerto Rico

I study islands. How they are affected by environmental change, how communities living on them make decisions to manage risk from those changes, and the unique challenges that accompany island geography and culture.

The most important thing that I learned about living embedded in an urbanized island is that no one need be an island in and of themselves. If anything, island communities are intimately connected and interdependent upon each other, especially when it comes to the management of natural hazards. I’ve learned through my independent research here as well as my service position here that islanders on Puerto Rico look out for each other in formal and informal ways. During a hurricane, for example, the National Weather Service and other federal-level agencies have their first-response protocol, but neighbors looking out for each other also have their own intuitive responses to make sure people are okay. This is the beautiful thing about islands.

The most important thing that I was able to do last week here was to be part of a community meeting in a small municipality adjacent to San Juan called Loiza. That particular municipality is an extreme case in climate change adaptation in the sense that it is within the flood and evacuation zone, is only accessible by one road, and is mostly low to middle income. However, the community is engaged in learning about how climate change directly might affect them and has created a resource center online where neighbors can report hazards and ask questions. This community meeting involved education people about how to use the website as well as inviting media partners and city representatives in order to integrate the approach and promote dialogue across sectors. At the end of the meeting, we all joined hands and stood in a circle and bowed our heads to pray together. I had not been a part of something like this for a long time, and it moved me deeply.

I felt as though my brief time here had afforded me an opportunity not just to serve a community but to also become a part of it. Not only was this fellowship a professional opportunity but it was also one that allowed me to grow personally in the way I approach research and how I envision the rest of my life and career. In the future after receiving my doctorate degree, I would like to find myself in a similar position – where the environment, decision making, and community building intersect (and preferably in the island context).

Here in San Juan Puerto Rico, over the course of a month, I have the opportunity to engage in dialogue here with people that I would never have the same level of access to back home. For instance, my work has brought me to the offices of people working at the federal level, in the military, and in corporations that are also involved in emergency response and disaster risk reduction. I have learned that despite differences in political ideology, different groups of people can still work together effectively to protect life and property. I am grateful for the dialogue that I have been able to foster, as it helps me understand the values behind others’ beliefs, even if they are different from my own.
I have volunteered to continue working on some writing (which is parallel to my own efforts to write about my independent research in PR) after I leave. This will allow me to stay connected to the work I began here and to keep a foot in the door in terms of the conversation about climate change and disaster risk reduction on the island.

I often find myself worrying that academia is too much on the sidelines instead of at the front lines. I am grateful for the public service fellowship, because it allows me to serve others while doing research, something that is so important during times like these.

I close with a reflection on the Puerto Rican poet Luis Llorens-Torres’ “Cancion de las Antillas” (“Song of the Antilles”). If one can make mountains of mole hills, Llorens-Torres makes constellations out of islands. His poem helps me meditate on the fact that even small island nations wield power and solidarity within and among themselves.

La Cancion de las Antillas (extracto)
Luis Lloréns Torres

¡Somos islas! Islas verdes. Esmeraldas
en el pecho azul del mar.
Verdes islas. Archipiélago de frondas
en el mar, que nos arrulla con sus ondas
y nos lame en las raíces del palmar.
¡Somos viejas! O fragmentos de la Atlante de Platón,
o las crestas de madrépora gigante,
o tal vez las hijas somos de un ciclón.
¡Viejas, viejas!: presenciamos la epopeya resonante de Colón.
¡Somos muchas! Muchas como las estrellas.
Bajo el cielo de luceros tachonado,
es el mar azul tranquilo
otro cielo por nosotras constelado.
Y las aves, en las altas aviaciones de sus vuelos,
ven estrellas en los mares y en los cielos.

Song of the Antilles (excerpt)
Luis Lloréns Torres

We are islands! Green Emerald Islands
On the blue breast of the sea
Green islands. Archipelago of fronds
At sea, they do not coo with their waves
And licks us at the roots of the palm.
We are old! Or fragments of Plato’s Atlantis,
Or the giant madrépora crests,
Or maybe the daughters are from a cyclone.
Old, old! We witness the resonant epic of Columbus.
We are many, as many as the stars.
Under the star-studded sky,
There is the calm blue sea
Another heaven for us constellated.
And the birds, in the high aviations of their flights,
They see stars in the seas and in the heavens.

Blog Post 2

January 22, 2017


Ad for window and door reinforcement in case of storms, San Juan, Puerto Rico

I strongly believe that the impact of a researcher need not only be felt in the long term. While in the field, researchers have access to communities that they would not otherwise back home. I have been thinking deeply about how to make my time here in San Juan an exchange, rather than an extraction.

Those who will be most directly affected by my project here are the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources Office of Coastal Management as well as the pilot communities that the office works with. Our research will hopefully inform policymakers in the government about the latest climate change science and actionable policy measures based on that science. I have also been doing independent research on how hurricane early warning systems work in Puerto Rico by conducting interviews with people that my community partner directly works with. This has helped me reflect on a few things:

First, preparedness for hurricanes and climate change will take place in the dark. Many people, at any given time, are working on reducing risk from natural hazards like hurricanes by reinforcing windows and building foundations, conducting emergency response trainings, holding meetings for daily weather briefings — all under the radar, without most of the public knowing that it is happening. For instance, the National Guard frequently conducts emergency drills to ensure that the right protocols are practiced by personnel in case of certain types of emergencies. This type of work is a necessary public service, but it is also mostly invisible and therefore underappreciated by many.

Second, while many people are aware about climate change’s effects, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis supersedes any type of environmental crisis on the political stage and in public discourse. There is a sense of anxiety about how the island will recover from its massive debt, and skepticism that the solution lays in engaging with the government. Being a representative of the government in Puerto Rico when I conduct interviews, I find that some community members’ distrust of the government seems to make the hesitant to speak to me frankly. I spoke to an environmental activist earlier today, and while I worked for the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which seeks to protect and conserve natural resources in Puerto Rico, the activist approached our conversation with skepticism. I spoke with another resident in San Juan who was living without electricity or utilities due to an inability to pay for his bills, and he expressed frustration that the city — no matter how concerned they were with climate change and vulnerable populations — would not return his calls about what other assistance he might be able to get. In these sorts of situations, I find myself racking my brain for what else I can do, what else I can give of myself in order to help. I offered to help connect the activist with an environmental planner in our office so that they could have a discussion. And I gave away a power bank and LED lights that can be used in case of power outages to the latter interviewee.

From the perspective of a traditional researcher, this may have been excessive in that it interferes with the subjects or offers forms of “compensation” for an interaction with them. However, on another level, it’s simply a matter of trying to be a good human being and making an impact with what you can.

Blog Post 1

January 13, 2017

Palms in Puerto Rico

Palms in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island located in the Caribbean region with one of the highest population densities in the world (1,140 people per sq. mi. As of 2007), and it is subject to hurricanes that can result in depletion of natural resources and threat to life and property. In 2008, in order to address these anticipated threats, the Commonwealth Governor produced an executive order (Boletín Administrativo Número 0E-2008-09) to create a special commission to develop a plan of action for climate change adaptation, resulting in the formation of the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PR-CCC), which is managed by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER).

For the month of January, I’ll be in San Juan, Puerto Rico, working as a research fellow at the DNER. I’ll be helping to put together climate change adaptation research for the island as well as interviewing stakeholders in disaster response to natural hazards like hurricanes. Small islands like Puerto Rico are some of the most vulnerable sites of climate disasters and, in some cases, have less coping capacity to mitigate risk against extreme weather events like hurricanes and drought. With extreme weather events becoming more frequent and increasing in magnitude, small island states must ensure that local communities are prepared to respond to climate disaster with commensurate emergency response, distribution of humanitarian aid, and strategies to manage ecosystems after disturbance.

My work here will focus on (1) assembling current research on climate change science to update the Puerto Rico State of the Climate (2014-2017) report; (2) helping with the creation of a toolkit that provides access to adaptation strategies for local communities in Puerto Rico; (3) and collecting data through interviews and participant observation, toward a first-year doctoral research paper for MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning.

This first week has been exhausting but incredibly rewarding in that I’ve been able to connect with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, National Weather Service, FEMA, Caribbean Community Climate Change Council, community organizations, and other individuals. The people that I have met so far both through my fellowship and outside of it have been kind, welcoming, and genuinely helpful.

Department of Natural and Environmental Resources

Department of Natural and Environmental Resources

National Weather Service Caribbean Field Office

National Weather Service Caribbean Field Office

Speaking with individuals who have dedicated their careers to public service has also inspired me to reflect on my own relationship with service. While reading this week, I came across a quote that resonated with me. It describes more eloquently than I can how I feel toward a life of service:

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

I find profound joy in doing this work, in this setting, and with this community in Puerto Rico.

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