(IAP ’18 EXPLORE) René Andrés García Franceschini
February 9th, 2018: Conclusions and next steps
I’ve been at MIT for something like two weeks now. I concluded my work having visited and talked to dozens of small business owners, farmers, community leaders, and high level players such as large scale food distributors like Caribbean Produce Exchange, non-profits like Foundation for Puerto Rico, and organizations like MIDA. Although there are patterns in the information that I found, I am hesitant to generalize because I believe there is some survivor bias in my findings. That is, these are not necessarily the stories of the families that have already left, or the businesses that will never open again.
Having acknowledged this, there are still some conclusions that can be made. From what I can tell, it seems that the hardest hit industry was local agriculture. Aside from the short-term problems of having lost all produce for the season, they were affected my damages to their greenhouses and warehouses, disappearing clients, increasing vacancies in their staff from people that were leaving to the US (which in turn meant that new staff would have to be trained again), and extremely long wait times from insurance companies. Their current major bottleneck is the lack of power: agriculture requires three-phase power, which the local utilities company has not yet provided. As of late-January, none of the farms (except those that had diesel generators from before the hurricane) have been able to sell anything. Soon their savings will run dry, and it does not seem like the government is stepping up to help out.Supermarkets, pharmacies, and other stores had more variance in their experience post-María. Stores that were part of some cooperative or were branches of larger companies were greatly benefited with priority access to diesel and centers of communication. For example, Coopharma, which is the largest cooperative for locally owned pharmacies, set up centers with internet connection that allowed pharmacies to look up patients in their online databases. They also facilitated distribution of medications throughout the island. Businesses that were more independent had a much rougher time starting up. Many never did.
Of the two primary issues that stores faced, logistics was the key one. It seems that there was some well intentioned but ultimately harmful competition of resources between large distributors and FEMA. For example, in an effort to invest in the local economy, FEMA bought most of the water they distributed from local companies. Although obviously beneficial for those to whom the water was delivered, it meant that stores could rarely find water to buy. They thus imported water from the States, which meant less space in the already full to the brim ships that contained FEMA aid. This large chain exacerbated the situation for businesses trying to stay afloat, and underscores the importance between public and private entities.
The second largest issue, as with local agriculture, was the lack of power. Even for those that had priority access to diesel, the costs of running what would otherwise be an emergency generator day in and day out was astronomical. Thus, the marginal gains after the hurricane were sliced significantly. Lack of power also meant that stores cannot store food. It also generally went hand in hand with their ability to make calls, access the internet, or even charge money on people’s cards. Low income families that receive aid through a government-issued card were particularly affected.
I learned about a really interesting issue that is apparently currently being worked on by the government. The government currently issues a tax on all of a store’s inventory. Thus, to minimize the amount of taxes they have to pay, many businesses opt to not store any merchandise that they don’t intend to sell within the next week. This, in turn, meant that few had any stored merchandise when the hurricane hit and the supply chain was interrupted. It’s possible that the government will eliminate the tax, although they are already debt ridden and most likely want to maintain sources of revenue.
This leads us to individual communities and people. These had the largest variety of worries it seemed: some worried about lack of power, some were concerned about rising levels of violent crime, others were thinking of mental health issues that come after such a traumatizing event. What was more constant, though, was that everyone knew someone that had left the island. On a particular community in Villalba, 7 out of 12 families had left. Some had said they would come back, but others were not quite so sure. For all the difficulty that bringing supplies into the island entailed, taking people out of Puerto Rico seemed much simpler.
In the weeks after the hurricane, I struggled a lot to find my place in all of this mess happening back home. I think now that I have a clearer picture of what the different facets of the problem are, I can with much more certainty try to address them. In terms of next steps, I am currently exploring the feasibility of a platform that allows users to share power in an easier manner. As I discussed in a previous blog post, I think this could make the system as a whole more resilient, and the experience more bearable. I hope that the recent increase in the use of solar panels will allow for a smoother recovery in a future disaster like this.
January 19th, 2018: Resilience through collaboration
This past week, I visited two local farms in Guánica and in Salinas, two towns in the south of the island. Although they produced very different crops, were at completely different scales and stood roughly forty miles from each other, the damage assessment was roughly the same. All crops were destroyed, greenhouses and warehouses were damaged, and the lack of power made irrigation impossible. Uncertainty permeated just about every aspect of the operation, from the soil preparation and germination techniques, to the availability of work for the employees. Neither has made a profit since the hurricane.
However, both have started to plant crops, and they expect to be back in the market within the next month. They have circumvented the irrigation problem by cutting deals with neighbors on how to obtain power. For example, a neighbor with a generator would allow some power to flow to their farms’ irrigation systems in exchange for some diesel. Or perhaps a jointly bought generator would be scheduled to power the pumps on one farm first, and on its neighbor at a later point. The practice of sharing power has become commonplace in the absence of a coherent centralized response, at all residential and business levels.
In my conversations with all sorts of business owners, the topic of centrality keeps popping up. A lot of systems in Puerto Rico are deeply centralized to just a handful of nodes. Once these nodes fail, as they did during the hurricane, the whole system collapses. This was the case, for example, with the energy grid. However, as I saw with the farms in Guánica and Salinas, there is an untapped collaborative potential between Puerto Ricans that can help strengthen these systems. For example, if properly incentivized Puerto Ricans could generate power through some renewable means, and provide the excess to their neighbors.
I think the “ah-ha” moment in my project was seeing how these farmers solved their energy problem by turning to a more distributive system than the centralized one they relied on previously. This makes it all the more concerning that, according to a contact in FEMA, the US Army Corps of Engineers is essentially rebuilding the power grid as it was before, with “resilience planning” to occur after power is restored. My experience has been that power is the biggest bottleneck towards normalization of economic activity for small and medium sized businesses. If we want to make sure that we don’t go through the same economic slog next year, a more resilient system through collaborative power sharing could go a long way.
January 9th, 2018: A bit of an introduction
My name is René Andrés García Franceschini, I am a junior majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering. My focus within my major is on large-scale systems engineering, logistics and transportation. Last fall, Puerto Rico was struck by hurricane María, one of the most devastating natural disasters to have hit my homeland. Even now, more than 100 days after the hurricane, its ripples are still present. Little more than half the island has power, and hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the mainland.
Of all of the aspects of this catastrophe, my project will focus on the impact of the hurricane on local supply chain and commerce, particularly in rural areas. Because of the lack of communication, power outages, supply and resource shortages, blocked streets, among many other factors, local businesses were impeded from providing communities their usual services. Many households lacked food, water or fuel because of this. Perhaps most concerning of all is that a lot of the support that has been provided has been patchwork: in the case of another hurricane, it’s likely to be as terrible if not worse.
My project will employ both a bottom-up and a top-down approach to understand what went wrong with local supply chains, what is the current situation, and how could it be made more resilient. The former approach involves interviewing local storeowners in the rural south to see what they perceive to have been major problems in their operations. The idea is to trace the supply chain from end to source and see what went wrong. The latter approach involves talking to government officials or heads of large private entities to obtain a more large-scale view of the issue, plus access any datasets that they kept during the recovery phase.
It’s already been a bit more than a week into my work (I started a bit earlier than most, I think), so I will post in a day or two with some more updates (and hopefully with more pictures!). By the end of this, I hope to have a more holistic understanding of what went wrong, and what can be made better for future occasions. I also hope to have a lot of fun and learn a lot about research in a slightly different context.