Hurricane Maria stressed Puerto Rico’s existing resiliency systems beyond their capacities. One of the most pressing problems Puerto Rico experienced revolved around the distribution of supplies in the immediate aftermath of the storm. [1] Much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, including its electric grid, road network, and water pipes, was in poor condition before Hurricane Maria hit. In the aftermath of the storm, the unprecedented damage done to these systems, especially the electric grid, became evident. [1] Puerto Rico’s road network was damaged on an unprecedented scale, in part due to the more than 40,000 landslides that Hurricane Maria triggered. [2] The resulting devastation left untold numbers of people without adequate access to necessities.

Figure 1: Map of Puerto Rico showing the path of Hurricane Maria and a map showing the relative densities of landslides across the island (Bessette-Kirton et al., 2019). [2]


Puerto Rico’s agricultural production and distribution systems were inadequate even in the absence of severe storms; wide-scale improvements would be necessary to improve Puerto Rico’s preparation and resilience for storms in the future. Puerto Rico, like other Caribbean islands, faces unique agricultural problems associated with its geography. Virtually all Caribbean islands are depend on agricultural imports, with many islands importing over 50% of foodstuffs. For example, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have caloric self-sufficiencies (caloric self-sufficiency is a measure of how dependent a country is on importing food) among the ten lowest in the world. [3] Puerto Rico’s agricultural issues are now becoming much more problematic as the island faces an increasing number of severe storms.

Puerto Rico is a relatively small island with an area of approximately 9,000 square kilometers, making it smaller in size than the state of Connecticut. However, the population of the island is over three million, and Puerto Rico must support this population with limited farmland. [4] Urban sprawl in Puerto Rico has put strain on the island’s agricultural productivity. [5] Notably, San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, has a population density of 8,262 people per square mile, [6] meaning its population density lags behind that of cities like Boston and San Francisco. [7] In fact, cities across the island are not optimized for density, and the growth of urban areas has resulted in a loss of prime agricultural lands. Urban sprawl has harmed and will continue to harm the island’s capacity for food production. [8]


The issue of agricultural production and distribution is one aspect of the wider issue of disaster response and recovery that Puerto Rico faces. Political, technological and economic changes are necessary to improve Puerto Rico’s disaster response as a whole. First, changes should be made to the somewhat nebulous policies of the Stafford Act that currently regulate the level of government that pays for specific disaster recovery efforts. The Executive Branch of the federal government currently has a high degree of discretion regarding reimbursements, which could cause Puerto Rico and other localities to hesitate about spending too much on preparation. [9] This issue especially affects Puerto Rico since it is billions of dollars in debt, much of which is held by predatory vulture firms. [10] Naturally, Puerto Rico is wary of increasing its debt even more. Moreover, after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s National Guard was not activated as quickly and to the same extent as in other states, which is representative of the federal government’s sluggish response to Maria. [11] The military, especially the National Guard, plays a huge role in disaster recovery, and therefore, increasing funding for the Puerto Rican National Guard could ameliorate disaster response by increasing the numbers of helicopters for search-and-rescue missions and hurricane-proof hangars, for example.

In terms of food products and agriculture specifically, innovation and policy changes are needed. Local agriculture not only helps make food more locally available in the immediate aftermath of devastating storms, but it also can act as a key component of economic development initiatives. Although achieving food self-sufficiency might appear like an obvious goal, this aim is economically inefficient and often infeasible. It is likely not reasonable for Puerto Rico to aim for self-sufficiency. However, there are innovations and policies that could be implemented to boost agricultural productivity, such as the expansion of crop insurance and educational programs to incentivize farming and increase agriculture’s contribution to Puerto Rico’s GDP. The Puerto Rican Government could also promote practices such as crop rotation, integrated pest management, buffer zones, and polyculture through tax write-offs. Moreover, urban agriculture could be implemented in Puerto Rico due to its extremely small land footprint. There are myriad social and health benefits of urban farms, and they do have high yields compared to conventional farming. However, urban farms are inefficient in terms of labor and material inputs. [12] However, increasing automation can begin making urban farming more feasible, especially in Puerto Rico, where conditions make urban farming advantageous.