Lessons in Leadership From Puerto Rico

April 13, 2018 - (5 min read)

In Puerto Rico, mid-April means bright sunshine and hot afternoons. This year, it also means recovery.

We met Amelia on a tour through Utuado, a mid-sized city located in the central mountainous region of the island. Standing in her sister’s backyard, surrounded by fallen debris and an overturned chicken coup, she held a machete in one hand, and pinned us with steady, frank eyes. When Hurricane Maria hit, her family stayed with neighbors who made their home on higher ground. After the water receded, she was able to move back in to her home. Her sister was not so lucky.

This isn’t an uncommon story in Puerto Rico. Last September, when Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico, it flooded cities and cut power to 3.4 million people, according to the New York Times. In November, Puerto Rico estimated that it needed $94.4 billion in repairs to recover from the damage and to rebuild the island’s infrastructure. Housing, electricity and basic physical infrastructure remain significant challenges to people like Amelia’s sister–and to the city leaders who are responsible for them.

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In January 2018, after realizing the extent of devastation and the long-term nature of the recovery efforts, the National League of Cities Executive Committee approved a measure to offer free membership to all 78 of Puerto Rico’s municipalities for two years. This week, the National League of Cities (NLC) made good on its promise, packing bags and leaving Washington, D.C. to meet with Puerto Rican city leaders and to see the island for itself. We were joined by Clarence Anthony, NLC CEO and executive director and Tony Ortiz, Commissioner of Orlando, Florida, who is originally from Puerto Rico.

Organized through the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, NLC spent three days in Puerto Rico, meeting with local and state officials, hearing their stories, trying to understand the extent and content of their needs, and offering NLC resources and connections.

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Meeting with the Lt. Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Rivera Marin.

“City leaders across Puerto Rico continuously demonstrate strength, courage and resilience,” said Anthony. “We are proud to offer NLC membership to Puerto Rican municipalities to help give them a voice in Washington and connect them to a network of city leaders throughout the country.”

On Wednesday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an $18.5 billion relief package, the largest disaster recovery package ever granted by that department, according to NPR. But for some cities, recovery remains daunting.

In Guynabo, the mayor talked about needing to purchase new equipment, but prices remain high even six months after the hurricane. In his city, life has returned to normal for many of his residents; power has been restored to almost all homes, except for some in the rural areas. He counts himself among the blessed, and has been trying to help other mayors with materials and supplies.

In Bayamon, NLC toured City Hall, where evidence of the destruction is still visible, but spirits are high.

On the top floor of the Bayamon City Hall, where the effects of Hurricane Maria are still visible.

We also toured Arecibo, a beach town just 30 minutes outside of San Juan, where bright buildings still stand proudly, but the effects of the hurricane mean that recovery is a ways away. And with hurricane season coming June, there is even more cause for worry.

For the most part, mayors talked about needing funds to bolster their infrastructure. But they also talked about the need to understand the grant process, and how to best manage the procurement and auditing process, as well as on-going challenges like local control, opioid addiction and governing during a crisis. Not so different from the issues city leaders stateside say they face.

“The resilience of Puerto Rican city leaders is inspiring. There are so many similarities between leaders here and on the mainland. Now, it is my hope to leverage these similarities to create connections across the country,” said Seantae Byers, director of Member Services and Engagement.

And city leaders stateside can learn a lot from Puerto Rican leaders. In San Juan, historic preservation, even through disasters, is done well. And leading people through a crisis–whether it be hurricanes, droughts or a snow storm–is a skill every city leader needs to know.

This trip to Puerto Rico will not be the last time we engage with Puerto Rican leaders. Having seen both damage and perseverance on the island, NLC will continue to make connections with city officials and find ways for them to interact with their peers around the country.

As we left Utuado, Amelia gave us a toothy grin, and offered us a prayer. Then she turned back to work, continuing to clearing the debris from her sister’s home.

“As a son of Puerto Rico, it gives me great pride to be able to contribute in the recovery efforts of my beautiful island. Although the hurricane damaged a lot of the island, it was not able to touch the islanders’ spirit,” said Ortiz.

meridith_st_jean_125x150About the author: Meri St. Jean is a communications specialist at the National League of Cities.