October 01, 2019

Building Resilience in Puerto Rico

KieranTimberlake Associate Fátima Olivieri visits the Playita community in San Juan with a group led by non-profit Resilient Power Puerto Rico. Residents were affected by flooding and wind damage during Hurricane Maria. ©Nicholas Pevzner

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, how can Puerto Rico become more resilient and serve as an example and an inspiration to other communities? 
This is the question that prompted Puerto Rico native and KieranTimberlake Associate Fátima Olivieri to travel to the island in June of 2018. Thanks in large part to her efforts, this query also set the framework for KieranTimberlake's initiatives on the island for the past year and a half. 
After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that catastrophically impacted the island in September 2017, it was imperative that communities in Puerto Rico think about long-term resilience strategies in addition to disaster relief and recovery efforts. The University of Puerto Rico's National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability (INESI) invited KieranTimberlake to participate in a three-day workshop along with 42 other local and international universities, private organizations, NGOs, community partners, and government agencies. The goal of the workshop was to organize on-the-ground efforts and match local community groups with partner organizations through a RISE (Resilience through Innovation in Sustainable Energy) network for both immediate and long-term resilience initiatives.

Interdisciplinary teams work together to organize on-the-ground efforts during the 2018 RISE Workshop hosted by the National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability (INESI). ©INESI

Through this workshop, KT's Community Involvement Group partnered with the University of Minnesota, INESI, and the Superhero Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides free therapy services to children with a range of learning, cognitive, and physical abilities. The Superhero Foundation had recently acquired a shuttered school with the hope of reopening it as a Montessori-based public school for children with special needs, ages six months to twelve years. During the first week of a seven-week graduate design studio, students traveled to the school in Puerto Rico's northwestern town of Aguadilla to conduct feasibility studies and other pre-design research.

A group visits the Corcovada community in the western mountains of the island. This 50-year old neighborhood organization is an example of resilient and off-grid initiatives. ©KieranTimberlake

Led by University of Minnesota Associate Professor Jacob Mans, Olivieri, and KieranTimberlake Principal Stephanie Carlisle, students conducted a site survey, interviewed members of the Superhero Foundation, and visited a similar school in San Juan. After leaving the island, the students spend the next six weeks developing conceptual designs that were presented to Superhero Foundation Executive Director Soammy Acevedo in May of 2019. 

Program and Adjacency Diagram for Escuela José Acevedo Alvarez. ©KieranTimberlake

In tandem with the student work, the KieranTimberlake team worked with Acevedo to develop a Visioning and Programming Report for the school. This report describes the long-term vision and master plan for Escuela Jose Acevedo Alvarez and its adjacent properties and will help the Foundation fundraise for its immediate and long-term capital improvements. 
Already progress has been made. This past August, Escuela Jose Acevedo Alvarez opened two of its classrooms for children aged six to 18 months. These classrooms will serve as teaching models for future schools and will also encourage the program's growth and assist in fundraising efforts for future improvements. 
Throughout this process, we have been humbled by the passion, commitment, and drive that the Superhero Foundation and other organizations on the island have for their communities.  
The work that Superhero Foundation does fills a critical need for the estimated 10,000 children living on the island who have special needs, only a fraction of whom receive government assistance. Finding schools and services for these students was a challenge even before Hurricane Maria, but after the storm forced over 250 schools to close, it became almost impossible for families to find viable education options for special needs students. 
We founded our Community Involvement Group in hopes of empowering, promoting, and connecting with organizations like the Superhero Foundation, and it has been our privilege to work with this group of educators, therapists, and caregivers.