• A Rinconvenient Truth

Rincón Works on New Risk Mitigation Plan

Updated: Apr 20

In collaboration with the Puerto Rico Planning Board and a private consultant, Rincón will be the first municipality to update its risk mitigation plan in accordance with federal regulations.

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Rincón Ocean Club in Córcega was evacuated after the devastating impact of hurricane María. (Center for Investigative Reporting)

Last Tuesday, representatives from the Puerto Rico Planning Board and the engineering and design firm Atkins Global visited Rincón, where they conducted the first of several public forums that they expect will enable the Central Government to update the risk mitigation plans for the archipelago’s 78 municipalities.

According to the associate member of the Planning Board Rebecca Rivera Torres, this document should identify Rincoeños' specific challenges and ways to mitigate the loss of human life and property in the event of a hurricane, a flood, a drought, or an earthquake, amongst other natural disasters.

Ivelisse Gorbea Class, a senior planner with Atkins Global who lead last week’s meeting with about 30 Rincoeños, added that every municipality in Puerto Rico is required to update its risk mitigation plan every five years in order to receive disaster relief funds through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in accordance with the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000.

“For many of our municipalities, [including Rincón], the time to update their plans coincided with hurricane María, when they went into full recovery mode and were not in a state of mind to deal with mitigation plans,” the consultant added.

Ivelisse Gorbea Class, senior planner with Atkins Global (Gabriel Pacheco Santa)

Although every town is responsible for updating its risk mitigation plan, the Government of Puerto Rico had to step in after hurricane María – the third costliest hurricane to ravage a US territory to date, which caused $90 billion in combined damages across PR and the US Virgin Islands, as the National Hurricane Center reported last year.

With a $3.1 million FEMA grant, the Planning Board tasked Atkins Global with updating the risk mitigation plans for all 78 municipalities by working hand in hand with their mayors in the next three years, starting with Rincón’s Carlos López Bonilla.

Their preliminary assessment says that Puerto Rico’s surf capital is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, which a 2015 report by the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council estimated at almost 1.9 feet by 2060; erosion, which has primarily impacted the almost 2-mile stretch of coast from the Ensenada Ward to Quebrada los Ramos at a rate of almost 3.6 feet, according to a 2007 United States Geological Survey study; and drought, which is generally associated with abnormally long periods of low precipitation like what the greater part of the northwest is currently experiencing.

As Gorbea Class highlighted, the team is still in the project's discovery phase. “This preliminary plan that we have right now is a working tool. We need the input of our people [residents of Rincón] in order to publish our first draft.”

However, some of the concerns brought up by the townsfolks are not necessarily addressed by the risk mitigation plan, according to the planners. For example, Erica Mulcahy asked if the plan would include strategies to mitigate the impact of sewage overflow in the event of flooding or heavy rainfall, to which Jafet Cruz Díaz, who’s leading the Atkins team in Rincón, summarily responded that it would not.

Although Jafet Cruz Díaz, from Atkins Global, remained in the background during most of the presentation, he led most of the long round of questions with the community. (Gabriel Pacheco Santa)

Another citizen, who identified herself as a longtime real estate developer from New York that moved to Rincón some years ago, raised a similar question about the loss of human life and private property if tsunami waves or flooding waters were to drag debris from the Rincón Ocean Club Condominium to the adjacent communities in Córcega Beach. Rincoeños might remember that most of this beachfront apartment complex suffered irreparable damages during hurricane María and has been neglected ever since.

In that same manner, another Rincoeña, who said she was born and raised in the town of beautiful sunsets, voiced her concern about its tsunami alarm system, which many at the meeting confirmed to be obsolete in most parts of town, with the exception of the area surrounding town square.

Rivera Torres took notes of these and other issues they thought were relevant and said that they would readdress them with the community in the upcoming session, to be convened in Town Hall sometime in May, when the first draft of the risk mitigation plan is ready for public comments on the Planning Board’s website. After that, the consulting firm should submit the final version of the plan, before moving on to the next set of municipalities.

At the meeting, Rincoeños were able to individually assess their priorities when it comes to the impact of different natural disasters. (Gabriel Pacheco Santa)

For Rincón to adopt the plan, it must first be approved by its Municipal Legislature and its first executive, López Bonilla. “This plan will be a set of recommendations for the municipality, but it is still their decision to implement [them] or not,” Gorbea Class asserted.

Since it is every town’s prerogative to update its risk mitigation plan every five years, Rincón needs to be in full compliance with the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, with or without the Planning Board’s help, if the mayor wants to apply for Hazard Mitigation Grants through FEMA when the next natural disaster hits Puerto Rico’s surf capital.