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16 Dec. 2020 | Comments (0)

In our fast-moving news cycle, today’s headlines on the most recent disasters or viruses often crowd out any thought or consideration of past disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

Yet, the communities impacted by disasters live with rebuilding their lives every day.

Today, as we’re looking forward to rebuilding from the successive health, economic and social shocks of 2020, it's worth revisiting what we heard when the Corporate Social Responsibility  Council of The Conference Board and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center jointly convened on Puerto Rico in February 2020.  At that point, Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Maria. Maria was a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico in September 2017. It is regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect those islands and was also the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Mitch in 1998. Moreover, in the midst of the recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico dealt with the aftermath of a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that occurred on January 7, 2020 and thousands of aftershocks since the initial earthquake.   

We heard from community and NGO leaders, government officials and businesses on their progress since Hurricane Maria and their resilience in managing the crisis of earthquakes on the island.

We heard stories about: 1) how businesses reopened in a way that were conscious of their employees’ needs and community spirit; 2) how players across the corporate, government, and non-profit sectors coordinated their efforts to rebuild key industries; and 3) how the recovery efforts were also building lasting partnerships and a stronger and more inclusive economy and society. We thought they’d be worth sharing with you.

Reopening Businesses with Employees and the Broader Supply Chain in Mind

Business resumption is so important for many reasons, but how the resumption happens can have many community benefits in addition to the obvious of putting people back to work. Here are three examples of what worked:

  • Serving employees’ needs. Immediately after Hurricane Maria, an incentive to get employees to come back to work was providing washers/dryers/refrigerators, etc. at the plants for employees use for their personal/family needs.  This took advantage of the fact that the larger businesses had generators.
  • Engaging employees as volunteers along the way.  With some of the employee’s personal needs met, companies were able to activate their employee volunteer programs helping with such tasks as clearing debris and rebuilding houses. Such large employers share a symbiotic relationship with the community and employees. 
  • Moving with urgency to restore the supply chain. Some of the largest businesses on the island are medical and pharmaceutical and employees need clean clothes to work in sanitary rooms. The products created are often part of the global supply chain for medicines and medical equipment.  There was concern if these factories couldn’t not open quickly, there could be global shortages of both diabetic and cardiac supplies. 

Coordinated and Collaborative Efforts to Reopen Critical Sectors

The Foundation for Puerto Rico served as a command center and provided headquarters for 180 local and global NGOs. After Maria hit, they initially worked to help businesses to reopen quickly and smartly. 

Focusing on sectors that can quickly attract outside income. The first priorities were businesses in the tourist areas since this was the quickest way to get people back to work and bring in outside cash to the island. This was a catalyst to get many others open that supply these businesses.

Agriculture was the other priority. Their “Bottom Up Destination Recovery - Scalable Asset-Based Economic Development Initiative” provided infrastructure, business support, social capital and reached 24 communities positively impacting more than 300 businesses retaining and generating more than a thousand jobs through this initiative.

Collaborating across sectors to reopen. Coffee is both a source of pride and income for Puerto Rico. Early in Puerto Rico’s history, the government gave farmers land in which to start coffee farms. It was an important crop and then Maria devasted much of the coffee bushes on the island. A task force was set up to help rebuild the industry. It was made up of farmers, producers, roasters, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Coffee Research and NGOs such as Technoserve and the Hispanic Federation. Starbucks stepped in and donated two million seeds. Farmers were encouraged to own a bit more of the supply chain as a little more work creates a lot more revenue. Nescafe enlisted spokesperson George Clooney with Puerto Rico native Lynn Manuel-Miranda to bring awareness to the island’s coffee industry and to raise funds to help get the industry back on track through sales of a special blend. 

Building Lasting Partnerships to Create a More Inclusive Economy

As with any disaster, there is the immediate response, but the harder and non-headline grabbing news is the long-term recovery efforts. Many businesses continue to have a long-term commitment to the reconstruction of Puerto Rico. Companies such as Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, Amgen, Ecolab and Walmart are major employers on Puerto Rico with tens of thousands of employees.

Immediately following Hurricane Maria these companies prioritized the safety of their employees and worked on business continuity to provide immediate economic benefit. Today, these companies continue to support efforts to rebuild and reconstruct through NGO partners such as the World Central Kitchen, Technoserve, SBP, Hispanic Federation, the Foundation of Puerto Rico and the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico.

Corporate citizenship professionals and their NGO partners are working together to make sure these efforts are community centered by engaging stakeholders in the future vision of Puerto Rico. One NGO leader commented that “AM” (“antes” or before Hurricane Maria), there was little collaboration between NGOs. Now “PM” (post Hurricane Maria), NGOs are collaborating well and coming together with a common goal of creating long-term community sustainability and resiliency.

While mitigation efforts are more challenging to fund and don’t grab headlines, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, for every $1 invested in mitigation efforts $6 is saved. Corporate support is going a long way to creating a stronger Puerto Rico in the future.

Puerto Rico is a beautiful island filled with friendly and resilient people. They have endured hardships both economically and from natural disasters. But their resilience, self-determination and innovation has taken them far. There is still much recovery work to do, but they offers lessons to all of us on recovering from unprecedented and successive disasters. In return, we might all consider a fun, post-pandemic, way to help:  plan a vacation to the Island! Enjoy beautiful beaches, newly restored hotels, amazing food and unmatched hospitality. 

  • About the Author:Jeff Hoffman

    Jeff Hoffman

    Jeff Hoffman is an accomplished corporate executive who has served on the global stage. Through board and commission leadership roles, he has a distinguished history working with business, non-profit,…

    Full Bio | More from Jeff Hoffman

  • About the Author:Tony Tapia

    Tony Tapia

    Tony Tapia is the Program Director for The Conference Board Philanthropy & Engagement Council. Tony has over 25 years of experience working in the nonprofi t, philanthropic and corporate sectors. …

    Full Bio | More from Tony Tapia


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