Funded Projects

Research in U.S. Territories

The following is a list of recently funded awards as part of a Special Call for Research in U.S. Territories.

Real-Time Tracking of Intraregional Immigration from the Caribbean to Puerto Rico After Extreme Events

Alejandro Arrieta, Florida International University
Shu-Ching Chen, Florida International University
Richard Olson, Florida International University
Juan Pablo Sarmiento, Florida International University

International migration is a major effect of extreme events, and it is particularly relevant to Puerto Rico as an important host territory in the Caribbean. The lack of real-time data to track international migration in the Caribbean when disasters occur can easily overload the capacity of health organizations and public health response. In this study we will develop, test and validate an innovative model that utilizes big internet-derived data to track post-event international migration. A public version of our model will be available to track immigration flows to Puerto Rico as a result of the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compound Hazards, Evacuations, and Mass Sheltering: Improving Practices for Public Health in the PRVI Region

Jennifer Collins, University of South Florida
Leslie Mass, Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust
Janis Valmond, Caribbean Exploratory Research Center
Erik Ackerson, Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency
Ernesto Morales, National Weather Service San Juan

Through interdisciplinary mixed-method research, this study aims to provide insight for evacuation preparation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (PRVI) for those who shelter at home, mass shelter, or evacuate elsewhere. Plans have to be tailored to accommodate new challenges (including pandemics), which are compounded to existing pressures (impacts from hurricanes, related landslides and flooding) that need to be addressed. Analysis compares results between PR and VI, informing planners in emergency management and public health. Researchers engage in PRVI territory-wide resident surveys examining their risks and vulnerabilities pre-hurricane as a baseline and post hurricane, providing analyses and trainings.

Hurricane Maria Mortality Study: Ascertaining the Excess Mortality and Associated Risk Factors Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

Kristen Cowan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the year that followed Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico the number of deaths from the hurricane was a point of disagreement as various studies utilizing models and surveys identified different mortality counts following the storm. There is a gap in literature on the number of deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria, particularly deaths indirectly caused by the hurricane or displacement. The Purpose of this study is to review death certificates to quantify excess deaths, to describe trends in deaths and to identify if there are geographical clusters of excess mortality from September 2017-March 2018 following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Photovoice and Cultural Competence in Disaster Recovery

Monique Constance-Huggins, Winthrop University
Alexus Sharpe, Winthrop University

Culturally grounded work is critical in all types of service delivery, including disaster recovery. Yet, little attention is given to cultural competence of post disaster work and its impact on already distressed Caribbean communities. The proposed study fills the gap by exploring workers’ cultural competence using a unique social justice methodology—photovoice. The study has implications for improving the effectiveness of disaster work across a range of service areas. Should we remain committed to providing service that leads to sustainable change in the Caribbean region, then examining and responding to cultural competence must be critical components of our work.

Impact of Recovery on Economic Equality, Public Health, and Disaster Preparedness in Puerto Rico

Antonio Fernos, Inter American University of Puerto Rico
Alison Chopel, Independent Researcher
Laura Gorbea, Puerto Rico Public and Applied Social Sciences Workshop

The proposed study uses the convergent framework and mixed methods to examine dynamic relationships between natural disaster damages, emergency responses, recovery efforts, public health and hazard readiness in Puerto Rico. The research focuses on economic equality as we seek to improve understanding of both the causes and effects of poverty in the context of compound and cascading disasters. The transdisciplinary approach converges economics, applied anthropology and public health. Findings are expected to provide new insights to inform development of economic policies that build social resilience and manifest improved public health.

Frontline Government Workers: An Assessment of Burnout and Quality of Life in the U.S. Virgin Islands Following Disasters

Kula Francis, University of the Virgin Islands
Nisha Clavier, University of the Virgin Islands
Kenny Hendrickson, University of the Virgin Islands

Recently, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) have been impacted by disasters. Namely, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and COVID-19. This research uncovers burnout and the quality of life for frontline workers of public agencies in the USVI. Frontline workers operate in harsh conditions during disasters. Examining burnout and professional quality of life offers insight on the wellbeing of employees in public organizations. An exploratory mixed-method design is used. Data collection uses modified versions of Professional Quality of Life Scale and Maslach Burnout Inventory. Regression analysis will examine the relationship between frontline government worker’s post-disaster burnout and professional quality of life.

Nonprofit Response to Concurrent Disaster Events

Ivis Garcia, University of Utah
Divya Chandrasekhar, University of Utah
N. Emel Ganapati, Florida International University
Pablo Jose Rivera Miranda, Métrika
Kevin Fagundo-Ojeda, University of Utah

Disaster planning policy and practice largely agree on the importance of nonprofits in recovery management but lack insight into how nonprofits navigate the recovery process themselves. In this study, we examine how health and allied sector nonprofits in Puerto Rico are faring under the compound effect of 2020 Southwest Puerto Rico Earthquake Sequence and COVID-19 pandemic, and what actions they are taking in response. We then compare these findings against findings of a similar study conducted after the 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria to produce a longitudinal understanding of nonprofit experience in contexts of consecutive, cascading, and compound disasters.

Impact of Cascading Disasters on High School Student Resilience, Coping, and Educational Performance in St. Thomas and St. John

Leonard Huggins, University of Phoenix
Ted Serrant, Houston Independent School District

More than 51 million people were hit by overlapping disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Thomas and St. John, US Virgin Islands have been experiencing such cascading disasters for decades. In September 2017, they were devastated by category 4 Hurricane Maria while still reeling from the destruction of category 5 Hurricane Irma. While some studies assessed the needs of vulnerable children and families in response to cascading disasters, we have limited evidence on how high-schoolers cope and adjust in the longer term. After 3 years, we examine how high-schoolers bounce-back, cope, and perform, academically, in anticipation of graduation.

Sharing is Caring: Experiences and Lessons from Islands

Karl Kim, University of Hawaii

This study focuses on sharing of housing, goods and services before, during and after extreme events. Using mixed methods (survey questionnaire, interviews, and workshop), the research will 1) describe sharing before, during, and after disasters in five islands and territories; 2) what are mechanisms and practices for sharing of shelter and mass care services and goods during disasters; 3) what is the role of global sharing industries during disasters in these communities; 4) how is sharing integrated in formal and informal initiatives to enhance preparedness and resilience; 5) what lessons, practices, and actions can be shared beyond these island communities?

When Nobody Came to Help Me: Protective Factors for College Students in Puerto Rico

María de Lourdes Lara-Hernández, University of Puerto Rico
Félix López-Román, University of Puerto Rico
Elena Martínez-Torres, Agenda Ciudadana Foundation
Sol Molina-Parrilla, University of Puerto Rico

In less than three years, college students in Puerto Rico survived multiple disasters (hurricanes Irma and María, earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic). Notwithstanding, they have continued studying and are about to complete their bachelor’s degree. The problems and the impact have been researched. How they managed to overcome them remains unknown. This research will document and identify, through in-depth interviews and focal groups, protective factors that supported the academic and mental health performance of low-income undergraduate students. Its results elucidate the practices and competences that could be integrated in community mental health services and public policies of the campus community.

Calculating the Social Vulnerability Index for Guam

Yvette Paulino, University of Guam
Grazyna Badowski, University of Guam
Jade Chennaux, University of Guam
Monica Guerrero, Guam State Data Center Bureau of Statistics and Plans
Sela Panapasa, University of Michigan

The Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) is a measure of a community’s vulnerability based on social, economic, and demographic factors. The SVI has been constructed for the communities defined by the census tracts in the United States and Puerto Rico, but not Guam. The SVI will be calculated for Guam using census data extracted from the 2010 Guam Demographic Profile Summary. The results may inform the government’s response plans and prioritization of resources according to community needs based on the vulnerability across the municipalities of Guam.

Risk Communication in Concurrent Disasters

Jenniffer Santos-Hernandez, University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras
Lorna Jaramillo Nieves, University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras
Sara McBride, U.S. Geological Survey
Nnenia Campbell, University of Colorado Boulder
Jeiselynn Ríos Rivera, University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras
Leslie Martínez Román, University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras

In the last three years, residents of Puerto Rico have been affected by hurricanes Irma and María, the 2020 earthquake sequence, and the COVID-19 pandemic. This project seeks to (1) understand the risk perception of diverse users of earthquake risk communication information in Puerto Rico, (2) how available risk communication products (e.g., aftershock forecasts), experience with other unfolding disasters, as well as their social characteristics and individual and familial situation, may inform hazard reduction and protective action decision making, and (3) co-design visualizations that allow governmental and non-governmental organizations to effectively and efficiently convey current and future earthquake risk.

The Effect of School Disruptions Due to Three Consecutive Natural Hazard Events on Educational Outcomes

Eileen Segarra-Alméstica, University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras
Yolanda Cordero-Nieves, University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras
Indira Luciano-Montalvo, University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras
Héctor Cordero-Guzmán, City University of New York
José Caraballo-Cueto, University of Puerto Rico Cayey

Major hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. In January 2020, the Island experienced a 6.4 earthquake, and the COVID -19 emergency began in March 2020. These events forced schools to close temporarily. Our research focusses on the effects of school disruptions due to these events on educational outcomes, paying particular attention to vulnerable students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with disabilities, or both. We propose a mixed-method approach combining quantitative analysis of administrative data with focus groups and interviews to identify challenges faced by vulnerable students and the strategies that would reduce the impacts of natural disasters on educational outcomes.

Co-Designing Cultural Probes for Participatory Community Mapping: Informal Emergency Shelter Planning and Management in Puerto Rico

Jonathan Sury, Columbia University
Robert Soden, University of Toronto
Yiyuan Jasmine Qin, Recollective

Puerto Rico faces a unique risk profile due to climate change, increased seismicity, the global pandemic, and slow recovery from Hurricane Maria. In the face of cascading and compounding disasters. The need to improve community-led disaster planning and management is of great importance. Our collaborative team seeks to improve informal emergency shelter planning and management through participatory action and design research framework. We aim to explore the novel approach of cultural probes for participatory community mapping in Puerto Rico under the physical distancing constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cascading Disasters, Gender, and Vulnerabilities in the South-West Region of Puerto Rico

M. Gabriela Torres, Wheaton College
Alitza Cardona, Puerto Rico Science and Technology Research Trust
Mabel Crescioni, Puerto Rico Science and Technology Research Trust
Jane Henrici, George Washington University
Waleska Sanabria-León, Pontificia Universidad Católica Puerto Rico

Cascading disasters in Puerto Rico since 2015 have included hurricane, seismic, and epidemiological events as well as those that are socio-economic and governmental; all these processes disproportionately appear to have impacted those who reside in the southwestern part of the island, particularly those who are poorer women, while both being affected by and worsening the vulnerability of a weakened and mistrusted public health system. The proposed multi-site ethnography uses mixed methods for secondary and primary data collection and analysis to provide recommendations for a long-term plan to improve the public health system for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.


The Public Health Disaster Research Award program is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF Award #1635593) through supplemental funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF, CDC, or the Natural Hazards Center.