Theses Doctoral

Reconstructing early modern disaster management in Puerto Rico: development and planning examined through the lens of Hurricanes San Ciriaco (1899), San Felipe (1928) and Santa Clara (1956)

Olivo, Ingrid A.

This is the first longitudinal, retrospective, qualitative, descriptive and multi-case study of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, from 1899 to 1956, researching for planning purposes the key lessons from the disaster management changes that happened during the transition of Puerto Rico from a Spanish colony to a Commonwealth of the United States. The selected time period is crucial to grasp the foundations of modern disaster management, development and planning processes. Disasters are potent lenses through which inspect realpolitik in historical and current times, and grasp legacies that persist today, germane planning tasks. Moreover, Puerto Rico is an exemplary case; it has been an experimental laboratory for policies later promoted by the US abroad, and it embodies key common conditions to develop my research interface between urban planning and design, meteorology, hydrology, sociology, political science, culture and social history.
After introducing the dissertation, I present a literature review of the emergence of the secular characterization of disasters and a recent paradigm shift for understanding what a disaster is, its causes and how to respond. Next, I summarize the multidisciplinary research and policy knowledge concerning Puerto Rican hurricanes. Subsequently, I explain my methodological sequential data analysis, beginning with three case studies, followed by cross-case comparisons and assessments, ending in answer, recommendations and conclusions. I implemented a version of Grounded Theory, combining deductive and inductive thinking, with a phenomenologist standpoint that valued people's experiences and interpretations of the world. I aimed to denaturalize so-called ‘natural disasters’, exposing with a political economy lens the political character of public decision-making before, during and after a disaster; and grasp how politics impacted the society under study. My research methods were archival research in the field and online, visual sociology and case study. Based on information-oriented sampling, I chose the destructive hurricanes San Ciriaco (1899), San Felipe (1928) and Santa Clara (1956), which occurred at critical historical junctures. I examined three themes: characterization, causation, and relief. Those themes divided into six sub-questions and thirty-eight variables, summarized later.
Answer: Disaster management vastly improved mirroring shifting ideas of God, nature, knowledge and humanity; always influenced by the dependent position of the island. Historically, citizens tried to handle hurricanes through mythological beliefs, empirical observations, rituals and material practices; some of which endured colonization and modernization into the mid 20th century. Disaster management emerged haphazardly; at first it was ineffective and improvised relief, without much preventive or reconstructive policy-making. The official perception of hurricanes changed from being essentially uncontrollable religious or natural events, to natural events that could be tamed with technology, physical changes and policies. Yet, it was a more nuanced confluence of environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political factors that enabled storms to become destructive disasters affecting the Puerto Rican economy, environment and society. The social groups that experienced higher resilience or vulnerability during a disaster respectively corresponded to the groups that were best and least served during relief and who could or could not produce public transcripts and policies. Such division resulted from entrenched social and political arrangements, including citizens’ rights, colonial administrative policies, social hierarchy that merged local and external power dynamics, and notions of habitus . Eventually, the growing understanding of citizens’ rights was critical to reduce hurricane casualties and the worst forms of vulnerability through New Deal and Commonwealth developmental projects. By also including contentious aims though, they created other forms of underdevelopment and dependency from the US; whilst technology and modernity paradigms bolstered new risks that would become rather costly. Simultaneously, disaster management became a federal responsibility, which reached Puerto Rico; but it was the unplanned intersection of a hodge-podge of disciplines, approaches and institutions, centered on physical interventions and neglecting the role of culture and the political economy of disasters with negative lasting impacts. Although improvised, contradictory and controversial; the main factors enabling the rise of disaster management were increased governmental leadership, knowledge construction, public awareness, planning and investment in hard and soft infrastructure, and relief provision.
My dissertation contributes to Puerto Rican Studies and to emerging planning discussions about the Circum-Caribbean. Also, it contributes to disaster management, an area of academic and practice-oriented literature relevant for planning, fastly growing given the rising frequency and intensity of multiple disasters; and which is usually focused on contemporary events, prospective forecasting and proposal-making. Contrastingly, my dissertation’s strengths reside in being a critical and exhaustive historical study of hurricanes that proposes an option to the customary deleterious disciplinary fragmentation of disaster studies and management, and to the emphasis on physical change that remain standards in most countries.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Olivo_columbia_0054D_12722.pdf Olivo_columbia_0054D_12722.pdf application/pdf 5.28 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Otero-Pailos, Jorge
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 12, 2015