Understanding housing reconstruction in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria

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Talbot, Jessica
Major Professor
Poleacovschi, Cristina
Jahren, Charles
MacKenzie, Cameron
Rongerude, Jane
Shane, Jennifer
Committee Member
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Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the archipelago of Puerto Rico during the 2017 hurricane season, amidst a long term financial crisis already present on the Island. As a territory of the United States; policy, resources, and decision making relevant to housing reconstruction post-disaster in Puerto Rico comes from the US federal government. Therefore, during the ensuing housing reconstruction effort, the differences between the reality of housing in Puerto Rico, and the policy and processes coming out of the US federal government, created significant complications to the overall process of housing reconstruction. Local, state, and federal governments, as well as a diverse group of reconstruction stakeholders, quickly identified the large volume of informal housing on the Island as a major complicating factor due to its sitting outside the framework and scope of official federal housing policy. While existing literature tells us that there are significant risks associated with informal housing, including the risk of non-compliance to building code, or built by unlicensed professionals, it is also clear that informal housing often provides a path to recovery when the formal process becomes difficult or impossible for homeowners to navigate, and provides a method for homeowners to maintain agency and control over their own recovery process. However, throughout existing literature, informal housing is identified as a vulnerability that must be ‘managed’, and little is known regarding how and why households reconstruct in this way after a disaster event. Therefore, this dissertation is an exploration of how human and social factors have added complexity to the housing reconstruction process, and aims to provide insight regarding the understudied phenomenon of informal housing reconstruction post-disaster. This dissertation aims to answer the question, “How have context considerations shaped post-disaster housing reconstruction in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria?” This dissertation includes qualitative and quantitative data in a mixed methods study that includes 305 door to door surveys in the municipalities of Loíza and Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, as well as 29 semi-structured interviews with housing reconstruction stakeholders in Puerto Rico. Data analysis includes descriptive statistics, correlation analysis, multiple linear regression, and qualitative coding for major themes in qualitative data. This dissertation contributes to existing literature in social capital theory, socioeconomic vulnerability theory, theories of place and power, as well as overarching fields of construction management and disaster recovery. Overall, this dissertation identified informal housing as an alternative form of recovery instead of something sub-par or a by-product of formal housing reconstruction, and proposes that future studies study informal housing reconstruction as an alternate outcome. Particularly, that informal housing reconstruction is supported by collective actions towards recovery instead of individual action, and is a method that many households choose rather than are forced into. Further, that informal housing may be perpetuated by multiple mismatches between local reality and policy from the federal government, across many intersecting dimensions.
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