Hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered a devastating 1-2 punch to Puerto Rico in September 2017.

Irma skirted the northeastern side of the island on Sept. 6 as a category-5 hurricane. Winds and rain from the storm downed powerlines and caused flooding on the island.

Two weeks later, Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a category-4/3 storm.

Long-term recovery in Puerto Rico, which is home to 3.4 million American citizens, will take years, and is complicated by its decade-long economic crisis that has left the island responsible for $70 billion in debt and another $50 billion in pension obligations. Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was so battered that more than eight months after the storms, residential electric service hadn’t been fully restored and more than forty-percent of the island’s 5,000 miles of roads were impassable. Frontline’s “Blackout in Puerto Rico” details both the preexisting economic catastrophe and the added damage from Hurricane Maria.

Scores of Puerto Rican homes are still covered in tarps at the peak of the 2018 hurricane season arrived. Another sign of the island’s slow recovery include trees turned into makeshift utility poles.

One bright spot on the island is a rapid rebound in the tourism industry, which accounts for 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s economy. In-bound flights, a measure of people coming to the island, reached pre-Maria levels in August 2018. And more than 90 percent of hotels had reopened less than a year after Maria.

In November, Puerto Rican officials requested $94 billion in disaster relief from the federal government. On Feb. 9, Congress passed an $89 billion relief bill for Irma, Maria, and Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana in August.

Before the relief bill passed, Puerto Rico received the following aid (these numbers are low estimates and do not take into account recent HUD allocations and changing private funds):

  • $1.5 billion from FEMA in public assistance and individual grants
  • $61 million in private donations from 122 pledges

Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928. Experts estimate the storm could have contributed to as many as 1,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, according to a December report in The New York Times. A Harvard study released in May 2018 put the death toll at 4,645, more than 70 times the official government count of 64.

FEMA issued major disaster declarations on the island for both Maria and Irma.

The storms also affected the Virgin Islands, where the U.S., France, Netherlands, and the U.K., all have territories. The hurricane damage across all the islands was severe, many taking a dual hit from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The responses of the respective governments have been staggered in terms of recovery and significant needs remain, including health, debris removal, small business and livelihood support, and housing.

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Recovery Fund raised $3.4 million for long-term recovery for areas affected by Irma and Maria. CDP began distributing money in September 2018 to 10 organizations to train care workers, address food security in affected areas, build information management systems to ensure communication between NGOs and community organizations, provide technical assistance to small businesses and support solar energy projects.

People walk in a flooded street next to damaged houses in Catano town, in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called "the most devastating storm in a century," had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk in a flooded street next to damaged houses in Catano town, in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Credit: Hector Retamal, AFP, Getty Images

Critical Needs

  1. Housing recovery. Every household and business in Puerto Rico was affected by the disaster.
  2. Creative, collaborative solutions. Bringing together multiple areas and players will be important over the long haul. As an example, projects that include sustained food, water, and housing options across each community with multiple players and resources. Disaster recovery as it has been done before will not work this time.


If you are a responding NGO or a donor, please send updates on how you are working in this crisis to natalie.worthan@disasterphilanthropy.org.

If you are a donor looking for recommendations on how to help in this crisis, please email regine.webster@disasterphilanthropy.org.