March 2022

For Many in Harm’s Way, the Costs of Relocation Are Too Great

Story by Kerri McLean

Photos by Ludwig Medina

A flooded community in Barrio Playa in Ponce, on Puerto Rico's south coast. Sewage tainted storm waters regularly inundate Puerto Viejo street.
Last year was the sixth hottest on record, and ocean temperatures were the highest ever recorded. In the U.S., wildfires blazed across the drought-stricken West, hurricanes deluged the Northeast, floodwaters flashed through Tennessee, and Colorado River water levels dropped dangerously low. Much of this is attributable to climate change. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021 was one of the most destructive and expensive years in American history. The total cost in dollars was some $145 billion.
 
Over the next 50 years, more than thirty million Americans will be displaced due to climate change.


Sixty-seven percent of Playa
de Ponce’s population lives in poverty and the community has shrunk by almost 20 percent over the last decade.

 

Many of the displaced will come from historically marginalized communities where relocation is more difficult because of economic insecurity.  For some, however, the decision whether to stay or go needs to be made now. Anthropocene Alliance (A2) is working with its professional partners and community leaders to help residents make the best choice. One such vulnerable community is Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

A cyclist crosses Bonaire Street near the site of the former 18th century Spanish Fort of San José, in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Un Nuevo Amanecer (UNA), a community-based non-profit organization in Ponce, led by Ramón Figueroa and Pastor Roberto Ortiz, was formed in 2017 after Hurricanes Irma and Maria crippled the island. Three years later, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake compounded Ponce’s woes and heightened mistrust in government leaders to manage disasters. Sixty-seven percent of Playa de Ponce’s population lives in poverty and the community has shrunk by almost 20 percent over the last decade. Some residents feel forgotten while others blame the government for allowing coastal communities to wither while wealthy gentrifiers move in.

Protection from flooding doesn’t look the same for everyone.

Un Nuevo Amanecer wants to protect Ponce both from climate disasters and economic exploitation. Driven by a dedication to the health, happiness, and well-being of their community, they are now part of A2’s Vision/Action 2025 program to channel at least $60 million in federal, state, and foundation funds to low-income, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities in support of integrated solutions to flooding and water contamination. By also providing communities with grant writing, organizing and communication support, VA25 is helping build a national movement for environmental and water justice. 

From left to right: Un Nuevo Amanecer, Inc., founders Pastor Roberto Ortiz, vice president, and Ramón Figueroa, president, along with institutional liaison and neighbor, David Southgate.

With partners such as the American Planning Association and the US Army Corps of Engineers, UNA has created a green infrastructure plan and is slated to collaborate on a floodplain management plan in the Spring of 2022. They are also working with Buy-in and the Climigration Network to understand community perceptions of risk and identify families and individuals wanting to relocate to less vulnerable areas.

In a hurricane, the first responders are your next-door neighbors.


Protection from flooding doesn’t look the same for everyone. Some community members are raising their homes to the extent possible. Others have simply left the barrio, seeking higher ground. And still more don’t know what to do. David Southgate, a lead UNA volunteer, understands the dilemma firsthand: 

When you’re in a community long enough, people know each other and work together. And that is something that relocation programs don’t consider. Our community provides a sense of security, a sense of collaboration. In a hurricane, the first responders are your next-door neighbors.

One of UNA’s initiatives is the repurposing of abandoned properties. If they are already elevated, these sites can be used for relocation, reforestation, heat mitigation, and water retention. Urban agriculture is another possibility for these sites, especially valuable in areas that are food deserts. A valuable side benefit is training a young workforce in desperate need of marketable skills. 

UNA’s vision, supported by the River Network and the Center for the Reconstruction of Habitat, is to map, document, and work with the Autonomous Municipality of Ponce to create a community land trust to hold abandoned sites in perpetuity for the community’s needs.

The top priority is safe homes. For those wishing to relocate, UNA wants to help streamline the buyout process by working with state agencies to ensure that the needs of the people of Playa de Ponce are put first.

“One of my favorite authors is Margaret Wheatley,” Southgate says, “and she writes: ‘Forget trying to save the world. It’s beyond us. Instead, create islands of sanity.’

The path ahead for Ponce may be difficult, but the first steps toward sanity have been taken.

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