Building Resilient Communities Through B2B Collaboration

September 20, 2018
Curzon, Rebecca
Senior Program Manager, Corporate Citizenship, IBM

On September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm. Maria caused unprecedented damage, including the effective destruction of the island’s power grid and its communication infrastructure, some of which continues to this day. We saw the damage firsthand when we visited Puerto Rico as part of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation delegation in January 2018.

Maria had a profound effect on Puerto Rican government and society, triggering their strong interest in becoming more resilient in the face of similar events in the future.

IBM had just completed a pro bono Impact Grant with the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) to assess the damage of IT and communications equipment for more than 1,100 schools when a chance meeting with Tam Nguyen, Global Head of Sustainability at Bechtel, sparked a collaboration between our companies.

Building resilient communities is a key initiative for both IBM’s and Bechtel’s corporate citizenship programs. We discussed the possibility of combining IBM’s expertise in technology and IT consulting with Bechtel’s expertise in engineering on a community resilience project for the PRDE. We seized the opportunity to collaborate and bring these skills and perspectives to the school system. As part of a second Impact Grant from IBM, our two companies collaborated on a disaster resilience assessment for the PRDE.

A joint IBM and Bechtel team traveled twice to Puerto Rico to perform site visits, technical assessments, and stakeholder engagements with communities, teachers, school employees, parents, and education officials. The combined team brought deep expertise across civil engineering, disaster, environment, resiliency, and sustainability.

The team’s first visit was in March 2018, for a week-long field study to observe the damage, acquire a sense of the effect Maria had on the schools, and determine how the system’s resilience might be improved. They also met with Dr. Julia Keleher, Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education, to understand her requirements and expectations for the grant.

Following their visit, the team analyzed the data collected during the field study. They used the United Nations City Disaster Resilience Scorecard customized for an educational system disaster resilience assessment. This scorecard provides coverage of the issues involved in disaster resilience and a structure for determining the relationship between them.

The team visited Puerto Rico for a second time in April 2018, for a one-and-a-half-day Disaster Resilience workshop. From observations gathered during the field study, they identified key issues and provided an interim report as backdrop. Leveraging our skills in creating resilience improvements, combined with consulting and engineering expertise and input from recent interviews, IBM and Bechtel facilitated discussion and encouraged workshop participants to develop approaches that would advance their emergency preparedness and recovery capabilities. PRDE participants identified a scope and sequence of actions required to improve the PRDE system’s resilience. This workshop created a shared view of the PRDE’s current resiliency status and priorities for action.

A final report was shared with the PRDE in May 2018. Two observations particularly hit home with me:

  • Puerto Rico’s schools formed the heart of community recovery, providing food, shelter, and camaraderie. Local support and response was organic and ad hoc, but highly collaborative communities rallied around the schools to help each other, which continues today.
  • A more structured response organized around specific roles and responsibilities before, during, and after an event would do much to improve PRDE resilience. This structure should empower local and regional action by delegating responsibility lower in the hierarchy. Furthermore, the PRDE will benefit by acknowledging and taking advantage of the collaborative and supportive nature of Puerto Rican citizens.

The experience of working with Bechtel and the PRDE on this Impact Grant provided considerable insights. First, it taught us that the tremendous impact of the storm on Puerto Rico is poorly understood around the world. More important, it also taught us how well and collaboratively residents of the island worked to respond to one of the worst storms to befall any community. We are very grateful to all of the people who took the time to share their thoughts and ideas for improving the resilience of the school system, and are humbled by their spirit and generosity.

For more details on this collaboration, view the 3BL webinar titled "Responding to Disaster: IBM and Bechtel Partner to Address Resiliency."