Breaking the Norms of Community Relief, Recovery, and Redevelopment.

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Introduction

The Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative is an economic development and impact project born in the aftermath of Hurricane María. The landmark project brought together over 40 professionals from diverse backgrounds and stationed them for 44 months across 14 municipalities in Puerto Rico. Established as a response to the crisis of the natural disaster in late December 2017; the initiative raised over $8 million from the Federal Government’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), Foundation for Puerto Rico’s Hurricane María Fund, Unidos por Puerto Rico, ConPRmetidos and over 1,000 individual donors and corporate contributors. The organization’s focus was to “further advance recovery efforts in Puerto Rico with a multisectorial focus, using the visitor economy as a strategy for making the island a global destination.”

[ VOCAB ] Gente Brava: People who act with courage and determination in risky or difficult situations.

Hurricane Irma, a preamble to Island Relief

In a recent interview with BĀSED., the vice president of operations and programs for Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR) and former program director for the Bottom Up Initiative, Alma Frontera, expressed the need to develop not only our economy but our communities. “I couldn’t imagine waking upafter María, nor any of the days that followed, and not finding ways to work on the relief of the disaster,” Frontera said. Before leading Bottom Up, Frontera had worked as a first responder to the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Irma in neighboring islands. “Many forget that before Hurricane María, we were helping our brothers and sisters […] we were receiving refugees, emptying our stores to send resources and rapidly building capacity to help aid those affected,” Frontera recalled. She pointed out that Puerto Rico was already responding a week before Hurricane María impacted the island.

Before the Bottom Up program was designed by December 2017, Frontera helped lead a different group with a physical footprint inside Foundation for Puerto Rico’s Colaboratorio: Island Relief. This effort set the preamble to what the components and the programming behind Bottom Up would take shape. Island Relief also brought in the first set of impact leaders that would rise to the occasion and respond in unconventional ways. Those leaders assembled were Ricky Latimer, Daniel Ramirez, Miguel Hernández, the brother duo Gustavo & Lucciano Diaz-Skoff, Natalia Arcila, and Anneliz Oliver. Among the eight, they led one of the first efforts to collect last-mile intelligence from all 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico through a series of interviews and surveys oriented towards mayors and community leaders. The team also grew a community base of over 500 volunteers and orchestrated over 230 relief aid brigades across Puerto Rico, reaching over 115,000 people. 

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#1

“Collaboration was crucial,” Frontera stated, “you had to keep the morale up while acknowledging that everyone had lost everything, and we were trying to do the best we could.” Among the collaborations, data and last-mile intelligence would prove inherently valuable to federal, state and local, and military leaders. Over a month into the relief efforts, these agencies, and the over 180 nonprofit organizations stationed within El Colaboratorio, amplified their efforts. The operational excellence and the richness of the last-mile intelligence database helped leverage

resources intelligently, minimizing duplication of efforts and ensuring missions & brigades were safe. “Lucciano was there [4th floor of the convention center], at 6 a.m. every day sharing all the findings and intelligence they gathered the previous day,” Frontera recalled, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship formed with the federal and state agencies. These relationships proved key to maintaining everyone informed and cooperating.

[ VOCAB ] Last Mile Intelligence: Crucial information which constitutes the last steps of a supply chain.

The bootstrapped team operated without funding and on a donation basis for well over two months. During that time, Anneliz Oliver and Natalia Arcila co-led the deployment of 370 Berkey water filters to 240 elderly care centers. The data & intelligence team deployed 20 EBT systems with 13 satellite units to create resilient processing centers for supermarkets, small businesses, and shops across mountainous terrains with hard-to-access telecommunication points. At the time, more than 45% of the population was dependent on electronic benefit transfers (EBT), and a lack of telecommunications infrastructure meant households couldn’t purchase goods in communities with no connectivity infrastructure. Similar initiatives were implemented thanks to the collaboration of Tactivate, Focused Mission, Viasat Inc., the Posada Family Foundation, AARP Foundation, Derek Jeter’s Foundation, The Estates at Acqualina, Roselyn Sánchez’s Foundation, Northwestern Selecta, Ranger Contigo, Allied Logistics and over 1,000 donors worldwide. Frontera later acknowledged that although the team had already developed the “operational, cultural and community know -how, it wastime to begin working towards the next stage.” By November 2017, Frontera brought three additional key resources to address the transition from response to recovery. New to the team were Michael Menda, Paolo Bustamente and Christian López. Bustamante and Menda would ensure, alongside Frontera, the continuation of the aid relief missions and brigades across Puerto Rico until late May 2018

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Upstart to BottomUp: Pilot Programs (Orocovis & Punta Santiago)

At the time, Frontera was pitching FPR to fund the team’s deployment to continue providing much-needed help around the communities. Simultaneously, the Research and Analytics Department at FPR was designing an idea to leverage the team’s strengths, with the nonprofit’s visions and a bold idea to relocate the field teams into the communities served in the previous months to maximize efforts. It was a perfect match. FPR pledged an initial $500,000 for what would become the Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative’s first pilot. “We knew we had to start thinking beyond the immediate response and relief stage; we had to begin thinking about strengthening our communities and building resiliency for when the next hurricane hits”, Frontera said. The Bottom Up team received their first round of funding in January 2018, five months away from the next hurricane season.

For four months, Christian López, an academic, researcher and historian with a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography and a Masters’s Degree in History of Puerto Rico, led the team to the first pilot location. There was now a full team dedicated to this effort: Christian López, Carlos Ayala, Lucciano Díaz Skoff, Miguel Hernández, Natalia Arcila, Anneliz Oliver, Leandro Díaz, Gloria Sarai Domínguez, Yelienid Cintrón, and Orneliz Michelle Torres. The team relocated to a small two-bedroom cabin in Barrio Gato, Orocovis and got to work on the four core goals of the pilot program:

 

  1. Support businesses that were affected by the hurricane and assist in the creation of new ones.
  2. Assess the basic needs and infrastructures of nonprofit, for-profit, and public organizations, to capture current needs and evaluate possible solutions.
  3. Build social capital amongst community members, government officials, and business leaders.
  4. Create an inventory of all-natural resources, tourism assets, culutral attractions in the destination.

Among the group, Carlos Ayala, an academic with a Master’s in Nonprofit Administration, co-led with Christian initially as an Area Coordinator. When López and Ayala began this first pilot, “we learned how important it is to understand the differences between the diverse culture in Puerto Rico”, López said, as he recalled the first days living in a cabin with other team members he just met. “It was a very humbling experience and set the tone to how we as a team grew and engaged with each other and the communities we served”, Ayala added. The team stated that “there has always been empathy, compassion, and a belief to listen intently”

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As the team worked in Orocovis, Frontera and a team of researchers at FPR fine-tuned the Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative by breaking it down into two phases. The leading director of Research & Data Statistics of FPR at the time, Arnaldo Cruz, and Juan Gudiño, who was then the Program Manager of the Research & Analytics unit, designed the Bottom Up components as follows:

Phase 1

  • Basic Needs & Infrastructure 
  • Business Support 
  • Social Capital 
  • Marketing and Tourism

Phase 2
  • Community Destination Planning

With barely two months of data on the pilot program in Orocovis, FPR then proceeded to seek funding for a second pilot location: Punta Santiago in Humacao, located north of Yabucoa, the municipality through which Hurricane Maria began her path across Puerto Rico. FPR raised more than $600,000 from Unidos por Puerto Rico and ConPRmetidos to cover program costs.

By the summer of 2018, the first pilot program had run its first phase of deployment. The second phase, which would encompass the destination planning efforts with the community, began. In contrast, the first phase occurred in the second pilot in collaboration with local NGO, P.E.C.E.S. The co-designing with the communities in Orocovis and Punta Santiago, Humacao, allowed the FPR team to create a comprehensive document that showcased the authentic local attraction of each pilot location. Additionally, exploring other experiences that could transform each location into a destination for local and international visitors to enjoy. These documents measured the economic activity, natural assets, and dormant opportunities for both communities to build agency and ownership of their future. “We had designed the program’s third pilot to be a regional approach to evaluate the possibility of scaling up and maximizing efforts”, Frontera said, as she shared how the Bottom Up tailored their programming to increase the economic development impact.

BottomUp gets funded by the Economic Development Adminsitration

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Due to the support of the Federal Government’s Economic Development Administration, the Bottom Up Initiative has produced to date an additional 6 Destination Plans for the 12 municipalities impacted by this expansion. In August 2018, FPR received a $7 Million grant from the EDA from the total amount, 80% of the capital came in as federal funds and 20% from private funding from FPR. With newly secured funding, the team increased to over 35 members in a matter of months.

The program still retained the core aspect of the relocation, known as their community immersion tactic. Instead of relocating one team to one municipality, two teams would simultaneously attend one region each (two municipalities per region). The first two regions were Aguadilla/Isabela (Region 1), Cabo Rojo/San Germán (Region 2), and later came Barceloneta/Manatí (Region 3), Arecibo/Camuy (Region 4), followed by Fajardo/Luquillo (Region 5), and Ceiba/Naguabo (Region 6)”.

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The Numbers Driving Each Component

The Basic Needs and Infrastructure team, led by Natalia Pagán and Leandro Díaz, distributed 1,143 water quality testing kits, 360 water filters, 241 recycling containers in varying sizes, 232 compostable kits and 288 telecommunications equipment. The team also coordinated the installation of 900 solar lamps, 180 water cisterns and 11 photovoltaic systems. Pagán, who holds a Master’s Degree in Management, Energy and Corporate Social Responsibility from Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, described how the team strategically distributed these products, “so when the next disaster comes, each establishment can serve as a hub for the community and visitors”, stated Pagán, “in total, we’ve distributed over 3,300 products across all 12 municipalities”.

The Business Support team led by Lucciano Díaz, René Cotto, Anthony Pabón and Bryant Guardado, surveyed more than 1,200 businesses, coordinated over 40 workshops, and assisted in deploying Destino Empresarial, a business education program in collaboration with INprende. This program provided 1-1 technical assistance to small and medium businesses as well as developed and created new ones. Through Destino Empresarial, INprende was able to assist 127 business owners and 29 entrepreneurs. Some examples of new businesses created throughout the initiative include:

Rivé Expresso Bar Cabo Rojo: Modern mobile espresso bar that sells gourmet espresso coffee, ground and brewed at the moment. Mainly for private activities, such as weddings, conferences, corporate gatherings, festivals, and cultural activities. 

Finca Espiral, Hatillo: Ecological farm located in the heart of the northern karst of Puerto Rico, seeks to offer a camping experience with all possible comforts in a safe and exclusive environment, surrounded by nature . It also seeks to combine accommodation with a three-phase experience: 

  • Exploration and adventure In the Tanama River 
  • A Farm to Table experience sourced from local agriculture 
  • A wellness space

Max Urban, Camuy: Retail store for plus-size men. 

The Social Capital team, led by Anneliz Oliver, Gloria Sarai Domínguez, Melanie Sánchez, Leisha Agosto, Valerie Mercado, Gabriella Perales, and Shalomir Gierbolini, helped connect over 500 nonprofit organizations, over 600 small business leaders, and government officials across 12 municipalities. They provided over 61,000 hours in workshops that ranged from grant writing, fundraising, emergency readiness and management of volunteers, to fiscal management. The team also supported community-led initiatives to build alliances and collaborative projects between community leaders, NGOs and business owners, while engaging community stakeholders for the creation of the Destination Plans. The Social Capital team results include working with the community to reopen the Túnel Guajataca, which garnered 500 municipal patent applications. The Tunnel was one of the various examples of asset revitalization projects in the program, which included a $25,000+ investment to clean, prepare, paint, and restore the space, also to install solar lamps, signage, and recycling containers throughout the area.

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Phase two, led by Community Destination Planning Director Orneliz Michelle Torres, brought together experts from Streetsense and Inversión Cultural, and two Area Coordinators, María del Mar Rivera and María Méndez, to produce over 1,000 pages in regional destination plans. Orneliz, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Design & Architecture from the University of Puerto Rico, a Master’s Degree in History and Theory of Architecture from McGill University, and a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Sacred Heart University, explained that “our task is to take inventory, showcase the potential of every historical, cultural, and natural asset, in order to help the community begin to dream again”. These plans share extensive details for communities to develop together and around each region’s most prominent historical, cultural, and natural assets. “The development we’re seeing is not only economic, it is also around our communities”, shared Torres.

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Thanks to these destination plans, national natural assets in Puerto Rico, such as The Río Camuy Cave Park, have reopened for the first time since Hurricane Maria. With an injection of $125,000 from FPR, the Camuy Cave Park was renewed and continued operations in March 2021. To date, the park has garnered more than $250,000 in ticket sales and once again became a bloodline for surrounding local businesses.

It is important that we acknowledge the interconnectivity of our tourism assets in our economy”

It is important that we acknowledge the interconnectivity of our tourism assets in our economy”

“It is important that we acknowledge the interconnectivity of our tourism assets in our economy”, said Ayala, who became Program Manager during the regional expansion stage. “Some communities across Puerto Rico receive a large percentage of their revenues from the foot traffic generated by these attractions”. Although each plan summarizes hundreds of natural, historical, and cultural attractions, there is a need for additional leaders and volunteers to activate them. Some of the key members and regional facilitators that are making this possible include: Bernice Baker, Dinora Martínez, Héctor Varela, Joselyn Santos, Marcos Molina, María Fernández, Naneshka Galvez, Neysha Murphy, Obed Alexis Santiago, Patricia Rodríguez, Rubhí García, Sylvia Camille Corsino, and Yarelis Rodríguez. All of this was possible also thanks to former team members Francisco Amundaray, Jorge Cardona, and Sebastián Castro who worked on the tourism component. Anna Lawson, project assistant and Rafa Ortiz, who served as an interim CEO of FPR during the emergency. Crucial private donations were made by Fundación Ángel Ramos, the Peter Alfond Foundation, Forbes Energy, Viktre, and the Leonard Family.

4 Years and 400,000 impacted

The Bottom Up Destination Recovery Initiative, led by more than 40 impact leaders and professionals, has wrapped up its deployment in August 2021. The landmark initiative is responsible for impacting the lives of 400,000 individuals and setting the foundational pieces for a more sustainable, resilient, and prosperous Puerto Rico. Deciding to work fervently amid the natural disasters, loss, and grief, members of the team still share an optimistic view for the future of Puerto Rico.

If there’s something that working at Bottom Up has taught me, it is that we don’t have to wait for a disaster to occur. We don’t have to wait for someone to be in need to give a helping hand. Tú puedes dar tu granito de arena hoy”. – Natalia Pagán

If there’s something that working at Bottom Up has taught me, it is that we don’t have to wait for a disaster to occur. We don’t have to wait for someone to be in need to give a helping hand. Tú puedes dar tu granito de arena hoy”. – Natalia Pagán

You can find further information about the Bottom Up program and its impact at Foundation for Puerto Rico’s website at www.foundationforpuertorico.org or by tuning in to a six-part episode series at www.joinbased.com. To meet the leaders behind these efforts, how their diverse skill sets and backgrounds propelled each component,
and their vision of Puerto Rico, tune in to your favorite podcast platform.