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MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

“We have a lot of capability here,” says Stoner, director of the Tata Center for Technology and Design at MIT, and deputy director for Science and Technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). “There are world-class people in the areas of disaster relief, electrification, regulation, water systems, transportation, and finance. We needed to show the people in those islands that MIT cared.”

Stoner reached out to his colleague Donald Lessard of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Together with various student groups, they reached out to other colleagues, who in turn reached out to more. In a short few weeks they organized a major conference, which took place over two days in early December. Faculty from across MIT met with representatives from many of the affected Caribbean islands, assessing the damage to those nations’ electrical grids, housing, water systems, and roads, and drafting strategies to both rebuild them and make them more resilient.

During the event, Keith Mitchell, prime minister of Grenada, noted that global warming had created “an existential threat” to Caribbean nations facing dramatic rises in sea levels and hurricanes of increasing ferocity. Ricardo Rosselló ’01, governor of Puerto Rico, reported that close to half a million homes had been destroyed or severely damaged, and that the island’s power grid and water systems had been severely compromised—and all that in the context of a dramatic debt crisis that had crippled Puerto Rico’s capacity to borrow. “The hurricane happened on an island that was already battered by a hurricane of the man-made kind,” said Rosselló, who graduated MIT with a degree in chemical engineering.

The December conference, while significant, was only the first step in MIT’s ongoing effort to bring its expertise to relief and reconstruction efforts in the Caribbean and perhaps more importantly, to develop a template that can guide the Institute’s response to future disasters. “We held sessions on housing, electricity, water systems, and finance,” says John Fernández ’85, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture, and director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative. “But the concept that dominated our conference was the ongoing tension between the need for an immediate response, and the desire to build long-term resilience. There are lives to be saved. Houses and infrastructures need to be rebuilt. Still, we all agreed it was time to stop doing business as usual. Simple reconstruction merely restores the systems that have already failed.”

The short term and the long term

A first measure, Fernández suggests, is building dwellings and infrastructure that can withstand the Caribbean environment—a region that due to climate change will be hit with increasingly ferocious storms whipping up winds of 150 or even 200 mph. “We already tend to build for high winds in places like Florida,” says Fernández. “But apart from Bermuda, where they’ve built in concrete and stone forever, it’s just not done in the Caribbean, due mostly to socioeconomic conditions there.”

The tension between immediate response and long-term resilience is not limited to the Caribbean or to developing nations. Consider Houston, Texas, which suffered disastrous flooding during Hurricane Harvey this past August. Fernández recognizes the value MIT student and faculty groups can provide in Puerto Rico, Grenada, and their neighbors, offering labor and supplies, expertise, and bringing best practices to those islands—but he thinks the Institute’s work in the Caribbean will pay dividends in seas and lands all over the earth. “I believe at least half of the value of our involvement in the Caribbean will be about transferring what we learn there elsewhere,” says Fernández. “Our work will impact people who live on these islands. But the general principles will apply to every city and human settlement. We now understand the problem of the short term and the long term. We know the steps to take to bring these islands up to best practices. There was a lot of excitement at the conference that we could actually solve this.”

Part of the solution, for conference attendees and for future relief and reconstruction projects, will involve developing a new definition for resilience. Lawrence Vale SM ’88, who helped moderate a panel on human settlements at the December conference, argues that it is not sufficient to reinforce buildings and systems to withstand powerful natural disasters, or to rebuild houses—no matter how strong and sturdy—on the first piece of available land. “If we really want to talk about resilient housing and cities, we first have to ask whether this new housing is safe from future risk,” he explains. “Will it be an asset for the people who are destined to live there?”

For Vale, Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning who also directs MIT’s Resilient Cities Housing Initiative, well-built housing on environmentally sound land is only one element in the creation of resilient housing. “When we rebuild after a disaster, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to help people connect to their neighbors, their communities, and their full lives,” says Vale. “After a disaster, the tendency is just to build quickly, and this often disrupts the networks that people depend on to lead viable lives. It’s a case of getting the house right and the job wrong.”

Vale cites the examples of post-tsunami Indonesia, and that of northern Colombia, where violent landslides displaced thousands of neighborhood residents. “In both cases, the people who came to rebuild saw the survivors as victims, as desperate people they were rescuing with this new housing.

What they didn’t see was that these so-called victims often owned their own land, that they grew food, that they had jobs and families nearby— that they were able to live a complete life, despite low incomes. After reconstruction, they may have had houses that looked better in photographs. But the houses were nowhere near their jobs or affordable transportation.”

Financing the future

Building resilience requires not only willpower and knowledge. Relief supplies need to be purchased and delivered. New houses need to be paid for, and costly power grids or water systems somehow financed. “Spending extra funds to build resilient infrastructure is almost always a good idea,” says Donald Lessard, the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “But it’s hard to capture the future value and raise money for the additional investment in the present.”

Lessard, who moderated a panel on funding sources for resilient reconstruction at the December conference, says a first step would be for these countries to insure their infrastructures. “We now understand that the Caribbean is going to have a 100-year storm, say, every five years,” he says. “Even a small country can purchase insurance. This will require an up-front payment, but perhaps it can embed the cost of that insurance in the money the country receives from donors or lenders. And then it can invest in ways to make that infrastructure truly sustainable— raising equipment 20 feet off the ground, or building highways with better runoff. The next time a catastrophe hits, the insurance proceeds will offset income losses and they can rebuild again. If insurance underwriters were on their game, they’d realize the value of these investments and reduce the premiums. We’re not living in that ideal world yet, but many Caribbean islands already participate in a regional catastrophe risk pool, and we also have instruments like green bonds and catastrophe bonds that serve this purpose.”

Lessard and his colleagues recognize that finance is only part of the solution to providing relief and creating resilience in the Caribbean and in other regions threatened by climate change. They also realize that while many disasters may share similar elements and consequences, each one of them is ultimately unique. “We recognize that all disasters are local and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Miho Mazereeuw, a professor of architecture and urbanism who directs MIT’s Urban Risk Lab. “This certainly holds true for Puerto Rico.”

The US island commonwealth is currently saddled with $70 billion in bond debt. Forty-five percent of its residents are living under the poverty line and 12.5% of them are unemployed. Yet because Puerto Rico is neither a country nor a state, it cannot devalue its currency or declare bankruptcy. “From the top, Puerto Rico has financial troubles that create challenges for its government,” explains Mazereeuw. “Despite widespread poverty, there is a tremendous amount of energy in the island’s community-based efforts, and yet the unregulated housing and diverse terrain make recovery extremely complex. Even within the island there are discrepancies. Things are more or less returning to normal in San Juan, the capital. But many of the smaller, remote towns are still struggling.” To help to address the difficulties these communities are facing, the MIT Urban Risk Lab is working to develop alternative models for post-disaster housing in Puerto Rico and other contexts.

MIT’s December conference kicked off a series of initiatives for the Institute to help bring its expertise to the Caribbean. Several teams have traveled to the region to build roofs, to advise on recovery and reconstruction, and to interview residents and relief workers. Faculty members have held follow-up meetings, consulted with regional officials and agencies, and have briefed MIT President L. Rafael Reif on their progress. It’s not the first time MIT has stepped up to provide relief. But there is something different in this effort.

“Every time a natural disaster occurs, MIT moves to help,” says Mazereeuw. “But whether it’s Nepal or Mexico or Colombia, it’s been an ad hoc process. This is the first time we’ve made a point to come together before we’ve drafted our individual courses of action. I think this conference has set a good precedent for how we respond in the future.”

Lawrence Vale, left, and Miho Mazereeuw, both professors in the School of Architecture and Planning, are applying their expertise in resilient housing and disaster response to the current situation in the Caribbean. Photo: Justin Knight
From left, Keith Mitchell, the prime minister of Grenada, and MIT professor of electrical engineering Cardinal Warde, a native of Barbados. Photo: Justin Knight
In January, MIT architecture students helped construction workers repair damaged homes in Villalba, Puerto Rico, with assistance from the Foundation for Puerto Rico (founded by Jon Borschow ’72). Photo: Luisel Zayas MArch ’16