The United States Census Bureau found that after Maria through July 2018, about 10% of the population, many of whom working age, left the island (DADS). A major reason for this rise in emigration was the inability to secure necessary resources such as food, water, and power. Many community centers around the island provided support, but their programs can still be further developed. The Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico location on the island of Vieques and many other centers like it have been crucial for supporting the people around them. Outlined below are the methods used by the Vieques Boys and Girls Club that can be extended to other community centers to reach currently underserved areas as well as some additional functions that centers can implement.  

Boys and Girls Club of Vieques Background

Vieques, an island off the east coast of the Puerto Rico mainland had a population of 8,364 as of July 2018. [1] Vieques was affected by both hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, and the Boys & Girls Club Vieques served as a community center in the distribution of food, water, and other personal items. Several non-profit organizations, private foundations and individuals including Resilient Power Puerto Rico Inc., Catholic Campaign for Human Development and PRxPR helped to prepare this location as a resilient center for the future. The goal would be to have the same type of organizations as these that supported the Vieques club to support the expansion of the community center reach.


The Boys and Girls Club of Vieques used funds from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and donations of food from people around the island and the States to make sure community members got at least one hot meal a day (Centeno). For the Vieques Club, the UNICEF funding went to purchasing catered food, but for 8 of the other clubs, the funds went to building and stocking on-site kitchens. 2 years after the storm, the Vieques Club was still negotiating with its municipio to get reimbursed for the unsponsored food costs. For new community centers, donations could be a helpful source of food. We also propose that new centers build a plan with their municipio when they are established to avoid a delay in reimbursement for providing food for their communities.

A supplemental source of food could be community gardens occupied by fast-growing, perennial, nutrient rich, native vegetables. The Las Margaritas and Arecibo Clubs have gardens, but for centers like the Vieques Club where there isn’t the land area needed for an in-ground garden, an alternative is a solar-powered hydroponic system like the one pictured to the left. [2] A system like this one automatically waters the plants, and can be moved inside for protection. Compost would benefit gardens and help them produce better food, quicker. Vermicomposting, putting food waste in the same space as worms to then be composted, is the quickest and most size and cost-efficient way to compost making it most well suited for these centers.


The Vieques club filters and desalinizes its water on-site with technology provided by MIT Lincoln Laboratories and the Banco Popular Foundation. [3] Lincoln Labs provided a filtration system that draws from polluted municipal water to provide a steady stream of fresh, filtered water for 4,000 people a day. The desalination system from the Banco Popular Foundation takes the filtered water and makes it even safer to drink. For communities with the correct infrastructure to have such a system at their community center, the system would contribute greatly to the water supply for the center. Centers without a reachable municipal water source could draw water from solar-powered wells or use a gravity filters for rainwater. [4]


Solar panels were installed at the Vieques club which allow it to rely on solar power when needed. [5] A sturdy installation is needed to ensure the solar panel resilience to storms, but solar energy would be a useful source for centers all around the island. Wind energy is another option for areas without the necessary solar exposure to power the facility. In these cases, wind energy can help make up the difference as it can be generated at any time because it is independent of sunlight. More details can be found on the alternative energy page.

Preparation Training

The Boys and Girls Club of Vieques holds quarterly emergency drills for its members. According to Abdon Escalera, a Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico representative, they understand that “keeping the community trained and aware for any emergency is a day to day duty” and therefore, consistently stress the importance of emergency preparedness. Even with the constant mental preparation, he recognized that more training could be done to lessen the impacts of future storms. Taking into consideration that there is more than enough work to do after a hurricane, we think it would be helpful to train more people in hurricane-relevant areas to enable them to take action. Centers could support Ready, a national public service campaign meant to educate citizens on emergency preparation and response. They would use the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) curriculum for trainings in the areas of Disaster Preparedness, Fire Suppression, Basic Medical Operations, Light Search and Rescue Operations, and Psychology (CERT). The curriculum is available for free online and considering the fact that internet access might not always be reliable, we propose that lessons be printed and stored at each site so that they are always available for reference.

Because everyone on the island has to deal with the aftermath, we propose that community members are paid to get trained. It takes a lot of effort to be there for the community in addition to managing personal needs, so relying on volunteers would likely not be feasible. The number of trained staff at each community center should cater to the demand of the area.

Medical Care and Health Supplies

Hospitals in many areas have been out of reach due to distance or closures. For Vieques, the hospital was closed and it was up to the Boys and Girls Club to have health volunteers on site to tend to people. All centers should have health resources available and could have a Medical Operations and Psychology CERT trained team ready for action when necessary. A lack of power made refrigeration for medication a major issue for those with heat-sensitive medication. In order to help relieve this issue, we recommend centers have refrigeration available and monitored by health staff.

A comprehensive study on disaster exposure and mental health in Puerto Rican youth showed that 7.2% of the 6,900 children in the study reported clinically significant symptoms of PTSD following Maria. [6] The CERT training in Psychology would allow community members to be there for each other in a more structured way. We propose that those trained are available physically for appointments, and also on a hotline-based system if the communication infrastructure allows. Centers are a safe space and with a psychology trained team would be able to serve the mental health needs of their communities.


The Vieques Club reopened relatively quickly after the storm due to a lack of severe damage. Because it’s far away from the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico central office in San Juan, it was one of the 2 clubs given the donations of satellite phones. It was able to communicate with the central office, FEMA, and other relief organizations to become a hub to provide for its community. Community members and the municipal office also used their satellite phones for emergency calls. Part of our communication plan is to make sure sure that each mayor has at least 2 satellite phones. A new center would work with the mayor’s office to ensure that proper aid reaches the facility before and after the storm. Other centers may not recover as quickly as the Vieques club, so having access to backup communication would be necessary to adequately provide for their communities. If the situation allows, as with the donations given to the Vieques Club, some satellite communication devices could be housed at the center to allow for direct contact with relief organizations and for emergency calls by community members.

Community Engagement

The Vieques Club became a base for its community when it transitioned into a center. In order to increase the community engagement, we propose that community members be able to hold events at centers to connect their community. The centers are safe spaces, and having positive reasons to gather would increase the morale of the communities.

Personal Supplies

Many supplies donations from around Puerto Rico and the US mainland were sent to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico. These supplies included clothes, shoes, glasses, beds, and toiletries. Donation collection programs could be used in all community centers to provide for their communities. In one of our interviews, it was stated that the need for household cleaning supplies was severely underestimated. [7] We propose centers collect towels and other cleaning supplies in addition to the usual clothing and hygiene items that they would collect to support community members at a household level as well.


Some of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico acted as shelters. We propose that as many community centers as possible have some shelter space to support the shelter effort around the island. Empty rooms or rooms that would usually serve as community event space could become shelter space. Blankets and cots would be on the FEMA request list, as well as an ask for donations. The community center emergency shelters would only be available following storms and the space would be used to encourage community engagement at other times. Permanent shelter services are available on the island to serve other shelter needs.

Locations For Additional Centers

Many organizations similar to the Boys and Girls Clubs have been functioning as community centers. There is still a need though, for implementing new centers in areas that don’t currently have a nonprofit of a similar capacity in action. 438 schools closed between 2017 and 2019. [8] As of 2019, about half of the functioning schools were only at 60% capacity, meaning there is space at open schools for those displaced by a school closing. [9] If they are no longer needed to serve as schools, then after a structural retrofit funded by a FEMA grant, they would be good places to transform into community centers. [10] The map below depicts the closed schools and floodplains on the islands according to City University of New York’s ArcGIS system. It is important that centers be as far away from floodplains as possible as floods are relatively unpredictable and dangerous.

Figure 6: Map depicting closed schools as red dots along flood plains.

Where there is a need for a new center to support the population, but not a closed school available, centers could share a school building where the population allows. When funding allows, a new building could be constructed. As the infrastructure of the island is developed and the population increases, the centers that are housed in closed schools can condense and share the building with the reestablished school. 

Strengthening the Supplies Distribution Plan

Following Maria, when supplies ended up on the island at the ports or the airport, they often sat there as the national government debated with the municipios over the responsibility for distribution. [11][12] The issue was extenuated by the lack of fuel availability and clear roads, the lack of communication, and the lack of power. Community centers could help municipios with supplies distribution in conjunction with the systems here while the infrastructure is developed around them.