The High Cost of Erosion

(Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

Huge Cost to Seaside Development

This is part one of a two-part report.

Sun, sand and saltwater are staples of the Caribbean’s image, which Puerto Rico has embraced. Along with the promotion of these resources came developments, but now the decades of warnings from scientists and other professionals about coastline construction appear to be materializing.

From luxury developments to marginalized communities, construction projects along Puerto Rico’s shorelines are experiencing increased problems with erosion, flooding and other related issues.

Many in the scientific and planning communities are calling for a moratorium on shoreline construction. Responding to these voices and the problems encountered in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, Sen. Juan Dalmau (PIP-at large) introduced Senate Bill 1122 to establish a 20-year moratorium on shoreline construction.

The science

Planner and environmental scientist Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera explained that “[climate change] is a determinant factor, but what has worsened or deepened the situation is that throughout the various government administrations, they have allowed construction close to the [island’s] littoral, or nearshore, knowing that the littoral and the coasts have dynamic extensions.”

Rivera Herrera, who won the Goldman Environmental prize, explained that waves need room to dissipate their energy, but when a wave hits a hard surface, such as a concrete wall, it returns to the sea with a lot of strength, which in turn does not allow the sand to settle on the sea floor. This causes the loss of beach or erosion.

Addressing the argument that the current beach reduction is part of a cycle, the oceanographic geologist and professor at University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Planning, Maritza Barreto Orta, explained that while there is a cycle in which the shoreline recedes and then expands, the effects on the beaches in such areas as Ocean Park [Santurce, San Juan] are beyond what would be considered a cycle.

“Beyond the cycles, or the periodicity of the cycles, the reality is that the beaches have changed,” said Barreto Orta, who is also director of Red de Playas para Puerto Rico y el Caribe (Puerto Rico & Caribbean Beach Network). Barreto Orta gave her remarks during a site visit to Ocean Park for SB 1122. She was accompanied by climatologist Rafael Méndez Tejeda, who echoed Barreto’s assessment and suggested that during the next season of shoreline expansion, people should not expect as much sand coming back as in previous years.

Geologist & UPR Prof. José Molinelli Freytes said there needs to be a “multi-hazard” approach to the problem because it is not just a loss of beachfront from erosion or an increased sea level. The scientist explained that shoreline properties are exposed to flooding, salinization of the soil, amplification of seismic waves, storm surges, tsunamis and liquefaction of the terrain in an earthquake.

—For the rest of the story, visit to subscribe.

Puerto Rico Churches Reinvent Themselves

Struggling with Economic Recession, Nonprofit Religious Organizations Expand Money-Making Services to Sustain Operations

Editor’s note: The following was first published in the April 18-24, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

As has been the case with the government of Puerto Rico, the island’s churches have been struggling financially to make ends meet for more than a decade because of the economic recession, a stagnant economy and repercussions from a government in bankruptcy.

Some churches, however, have been hit by financial woes more than others. Nonetheless, those churches that are more economically stable have had to reinvent themselves to keep operations running.

Second Union Church

The Second Union Church in Guaynabo is one example. The interdenominational, English-speaking church has seen a decline in its congregation’s attendance over the past 10 years. This change has mostly been because there are fewer English-speaking churchgoers on the island, especially after the 2017 hurricanes.

Still, the church has found ways to continue to function by renting its space to the Spanish-speaking Iglesia Mar Azul on Sunday nights, celebrating weddings and holding its annual Christmas Bazaar, just to name a few of the strategies being adapted to continue to successfully operate.

The Rev. Robert Zoba said the past few years have been tough for his church.

“Yes, we are struggling, especially those of us who are English-speaking congregations…. It’s a struggle…we have always had Weight Watchers meetings, we have a violin class and that sort of thing,” Zoba said.

However, Zoba explained that nonprofit churches must keep in mind that “you can’t venture too far from your mission.” The Second Union Church is a nonprofit.

“So, the kind of things we do are small scale, and I think that’s where a lot of churches may get into trouble because you kind of lose your mission and then you may lose your tax status also,” Zoba noted.

“But one thing that we’ve done, which has been a huge plus and fits completely in our mission, is we rent the church out to a Spanish-speaking church Sunday night, and they are a huge success. They pack out here, and it provides us with some income, and it’s part of our mission…. So, it is the best of both worlds. They are an extension of our ministry, and we have a great relationship with them; they are Iglesia Mar Azul, so that’s been a win-win for both us.”

He said Iglesia Mar Azul has been using the Second Union Church’s space in Guaynabo for some three or four years.

“They have actually outgrown us; they are looking to get their own building, [and] it has been wonderful for us and for them, I think. That is one way we’ve been able to deal with budget deficits,” he added.

The Second Union Church has continued holding its yearly Christmas Bazaar—long before the fiscal crisis—Zoba said, adding that it has been helpful, but the money raised at this event is given to the church’s women’s ministry.

“[T]hat money [raised at the Christmas Bazaar] goes right out the door. It’s all outreach money, and we help a whole bunch of charities, so that’s not part of our budget,” Zoba said. “Ninety-five percent of that goes to organizations we support here on the island, such as shelters for women, abused women, orphanages, the homeless, that kind of thing. So, that’s not a moneymaker for us….”

Zoba explained that the church is trying to hold more weddings, and recently renovated its fellowship program to make that a “little more attractive for the wedding and the reception, but we just finished that project.”

He reiterated that these other approaches are helping the church, but again said, “You are in danger of losing your mission and tax status.”

“I would say that raising anything more than 20 percent or 30 percent of your budget is going to start raising flags with the Internal Revenue Service [IRS],” the pastor said. “We have a budget of about a quarter of a million [dollars].”

The violin class offered at the church, where a room is rented out, does not make a lot of money for the church either, Zoba noted.

“One thing that happens is that you get people in the building,” he added. “But if you get people in the building to come into the church and they see the bulletin board and see what we do…. If you get people indirectly that way, that’s one way to boost your attendance. Our problem has been that as an English-speaking church, our main advertising was done with Radio WOSO [which went off the air in 2014]…but we really have a hard time, at this point, getting the word out about who we are.”

Zoba explained that a lot of the multinational companies on the island are hiring locals and are not bringing families down [from the States] as they used to, so a lot of people have left the island, which “has hurt us because the English-speaking church members keep diminishing.”

“It has been a battle of the churches for most of us,” he noted. “So, it is tough, it is a tough environment for everybody. We have about 130 people attending church on a Sunday, versus 10 years ago when about 250 or 260 people would attend.”

The Second Union Church helps support a number of charities, including La Fondita de Jesús and Refugio de Niños Manuel Fernández Juncos. The church also lends its space to an Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) group that meets once a week.

“We did a lot after the hurricane, we went out and helped families, people who lost their homes, and we got a washer and dryer, a bed, and we had it delivered,” he said. “If we give to the Lord and give to the poor, God is going to take care of us, and he has, and we are grateful.”

Zoba has been the pastor at the church for 15 years, and his salary comes from his congregation.

“We are self-supporting, we have a self-governing congregation, we raise our funds, we don’t get funds from other sources…,” Zoba said.

Parroquia Santa Bernardita

Meanwhile, at Parroquia Santa Bernardita in San Juan, Father Wilfredo “Willie” Peña has also taken some innovative approaches to help pay for the church’s operational costs. The church has 33 ministries.

One of its ministries donates food, and church members cook breakfast and lunch, which is sold on Sundays, and with the funds raised some of the church’s bills can get paid.

“Our community is pretty stable, and so when our church members can cooperate with their offering on Sundays and others donate materials, others donate their time, that helps us,” Peña said.

He said church members always come up with ways to help raise some funds, and “then we continue to find solutions, just like everyone else in Puerto Rico.”

The church also created a nonprofit religious cultural institution, called PSB Productions (named after Parroquia Santa Bernardita), and holds a theatrical performance twice a year at Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré in San Juan’s Santurce district. During April, the company’s young actors are performing “Fiddler on the Roof.” The money raised, however will be donated to Casa Raquel, a women’s pro-life help center near the church, in San Juan’s Country Club neighborhood, and the nonprofit La Fondita de Jesús. Some of the money is saved for a future theatrical production, Peña explained.

After the passage of Hurricane Maria, the church’s structure was not affected, and it became a space for people who needed to eat, pray and talk. The church’s kitchen is supplied with gas, so Peña made sure to have the tanks filled so the church could help families and others who needed food. After the hurricane, it was difficult for many islanders to get a hot meal, and Parroquia Santa Bernardita helped everyone who came.

“We were blessed with being the blessing for the people,” he said.

The community came together and helped the church after the hurricane, but thankfully, it didn’t suffer structural damages, Peña stressed.

“After the hurricane, the community came together and helped us. We became a life center and it was very beautiful to see all the people come to the church,” Peña said. “Our motto is Opening Doors for Christ, and we became a commodities center. Casa Raquel donated Pampers, baby clothes and other baby supplies. All that was put into use for the community after the hurricane.”

Peña said his salary comes from the community through donations made at Sunday service, but explained that some parishes that don’t have enough money from donations made by the community receive their basic salary from the archdiocese.

He noted that when the Puerto Rico Catholic Church filed for bankruptcy and the money was embargoed, the parish was affected, but things quickly turned around and everything returned to normal at Parroquia Santa Bernardita.

About 500 people attend Sunday morning mass and about 500 attend Sunday evening mass.

The church is also able to sustain itself financially thanks to donations or offerings from church members during mass. It also has a bookstore that sells Bibles and religious articles.

Parroquia San Juan de la Cruz

An innovative way another Catholic Church has managed to help pay operational costs is by selling coffee created by the parish, which is also sold at a number of supermarkets in Puerto Rico.

Father José Juan Cardona Díaz, of Parroquia San Juan de la Cruz in San Juan, said the parish needed to find ways to help pay for some of its operational costs, so they created a brand of 100 percent Puerto Rican coffee, Café Divino.

“About six years ago, we started to sell the coffee at the parish and then it started to be sold at local supermarkets such as Pueblo, SuperMax, Econo in Altamira and Selectos in the Caguas area,” Cardona Díaz said.

However, he explained that the coffee is on “standby” at local supermarkets because of the scarcity of Puerto Rican coffee, an issue that should not last too long, since its farming has continually ramped up after the historic 2017 hurricanes struck.

“It has been a good experience for our church, to help pay some of the operational costs and continue offering services,” he added.

Santurce es Ley

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Jan. 31 – Feb. 6, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Public art has been emerging for years in various urban areas of Puerto Rico. It is especially manifest in San Juan, in the Santurce and Río Piedras districts. Various pieces have been created by recognized artists and others by emerging artists who focus on the artistic specialization of the moment.

It is known that in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Berlin, works of this nature stand out and are well-received as an urban artistic example of the times.

Multiple books on this type of art have been published, where its importance among several other traditional forms is already recognized. In Puerto Rico, there were times when graffiti was rejected as a valuable artistic process and has sometimes been destroyed or vandalized. We still see this attack on public art when more daring visuals are exhibited.

However, of note is that as a result of the establishment of Santurce es Ley, public art has been promulgated as a banner of contemporary and Puerto Rican art. By visiting the area around Cerra Street in Santurce, one can enjoy remarkable artistic variety that is well-executed, with phenomenal creativity—an artistic example that compares with the best in the world.

We are publishing photos by Augusto Ferrer of some of these works for our readers to enjoy. Surely, they will find that they are magnificent and Santurce es Ley deserves public support, which can continue the effort to spread the word about our public art.

There are those who suggest this area of Santurce should be recognized as a potential tourism focus, as is the case in several other cities, and an effort to improve the area’s infrastructure should be carried out. There are valid reasons to establish Santurce as an art enclave that is focused on internationally.

We invite you to walk the streets around Calle Cerra for a close-up experience of what artists, both Puerto Rican and guests from abroad, have to offer.

Photos by Augusto Ferrer: 

Lessons Learned? Surviving the Disaster’s Aftermath

Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute director, Charles Figley, and Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy director, Reggie Ferreira

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

Getting through Sept. 20, 2017, was the first step. Then, it was surviving the following months of recovery. Now that the island has passed Hurricane Maria’s one-year anniversary, and Puerto Ricans are getting on with their new normal, it is important to assess and respond to the mental and emotional scars left by the major storm and get on with the bumpy recovery process.

To that end, Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR) invited experts on trauma to Puerto Rico, including, Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, who has focused his career as an academic researcher on trauma from catastrophic events, including civilian populations as well as military veterans. Also invited from Tulane University was Reggie Ferreira, director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy.

During a media roundtable, Figley indicated he has studied about 35 traumatic events, including Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005, and explained that what people on the island are experiencing, at a general stage, is not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but rather a general response to trauma. “We are not really talking about [PTSD]; we are talking about the natural response to trauma. You see, when most people are affected by trauma, they don’t develop PTSD. It’s a fairly small percentage, even for something as pervasive and destructive as you find here [after the hurricanes],” the professor said.

Nevertheless, Figley argued, it is important to treat the mental consequences left by a traumatic event, but the support infrastructure to address such emotional trauma is not completely analogous to the structure for handling long-term mental health diseases or conditions.

In the case of PTSD, or “the general response to trauma,” treatment is focused on getting the affected person over the event because handling trauma “is really memory management.”

“Whenever we are faced with a traumatic event, irrespective of what it is, whether it is a natural disaster or an auto accident, there are five questions we have to address to feel safe again: What happened?; Why did it happen?; Why did I act the way I did at the time?; Why have I acted the way I have since that time?; What if this happens again?” Figley explained.

The director of the Traumatology Institute argued that he has seen the same reaction and heard the same questions from various populations—“irrespective of culture and irrespective of religiosity.” Interestingly, Figley added, for some people in New Orleans, the resolution of the traumatic event came with Hurricane Gustav, three years after Hurricane Katrina, because it was an event of the same nature as the previous major storm but produced a different result. Therefore, the survivors of the 2005 devastation were able to see that a hurricane does not necessarily yield the same level of devastation.

Both the professors and Annie Mayol, president of the FPR, agreed it is important to pay attention to victims and the people aiding in the recovery effort, who may become emotionally drained from helping people through their difficult time.

Mayol explained that the first part of this initiative is a fact-finding mission, so the professors are able to assess the current state of the people and the mental health infrastructure to then help provide tools to handle recovery from emotional trauma.

“Foundation for Puerto Rico recognized that the people who work here, at this not-for-profit, and the people who work with many other organizations are always focused on helping others, but it is very important that we recognize this is a marathon, that it is going to be a long process. So, we also have to consider self-care and how we can ensure our team of workers that it is so important to maintain resilience, a personal resiliency, in this process and that we support them,” the foundation president said.

Consumer protections on reverse mortgages sought

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the April 12-18, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

A person identified only as “don Juan” by Puerto Rico’s Legal Services Office purchased a reverse mortgage with money used to care for his wife, who had Alzheimer’s disease. The investor, however, tried to foreclose on the residence, contending “don Juan” had failed to pay property taxes and purchase hazard insurance. “Don Juan” contacted the loan servicer, which was not a local bank, to clear up the misunderstanding but, because he did not speak English, he was told he would be called back, which did not occur. The loan servicer, instead, tried to foreclose on his home.

Through the Legal Services Office, he managed to prove he had insurance and was also exempted from paying property taxes. The case, however, is a classic example of problems with reverse mortgages in that these foreclosures often involve foreign bankers who do not know local laws. These loan services often do not provide advance warning to consumers before attempting to foreclose on a home, which is often done in federal court because it is faster but also more expensive for the homeowner.

Current regulations also do not provide for loss-mitigation alternatives once the loan is declared in default. To make matters worse, communications between the loan servicer and homeowner is deficient, the Legal Services Office said.

José Acarón, state director of AARP, said the island passed a law in 2011 to protect consumers who sought reverse mortgages, following deceptive advertising on radio and television. Some of these ads contained language referring to reverse mortgages as a federal program and not a mortgage loan. They also falsely led homeowners to believe they would be able to keep their homes and receive additional income from the product.

“While it is true the goal of the reverse loan is for people to keep their homes and acquire income, the contract also says the bank can foreclose on the home if the homeowner does not have hazard insurance or fails to keep the house in good shape,” he said.

Some banks have led consumers to believe the money they were receiving from the reverse mortgage came from the home’s equity instead of from debt that grows with every payment given to consumers, which also accumulates interest.

More often than not, the amount of money promised as part of the reverse mortgage is not enough for the consumer to live on. He noted that an AARP member from Carolina sought a reverse mortgage because she did not have enough income. Her house was valued at $132,000 but she only received a reverse mortgage for $57,000, of which $12,000 went toward closing fees. She received a lump sum because she needed to repair the house and pay some debts. However, the accumulated monthly interest on the loan turned out to be $327. “She told us she was not adequately informed of the costs and, while she did not tell us how much money she had left, at age 72, she fears she will end up in the same needy condition she was before she got the loan,” he said.

–Read the rest of this article in Caribbean Business’ epaper here.

Labor protection laws having impact on employers

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the April 12-18, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

After nearly all key labor laws were eased last year to stimulate the Puerto Rico economy amid concerns the changes infringed on workers’ rights, the island’s employers are now facing additional labor protection laws for employees, with three at the local level and two at the federal level.

The information was provided by Reynaldo Quintana, adviser to the Society for Human Resource Management. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Labor has a proposed new regulation that would allow restaurants to collect tips earned by their employees and redistribute the money to the benefit of workers who do not receive tips. The change, which would only apply to workers who earn at least the federal minimum wage, seeks to cut wage disparities between “back-of-house” workers, including dishwashers and cooks, who do not receive tips, and tipped wait staff and bartenders. Under the new regulation, employers could collect the tips and distribute them equally among tipped and nontipped employees.

“The restaurant can make a rule that if a waiter gets a tip in cash, he [or she] must give it to the employer so it can be distributed,” Quintana said.

Critics of the proposed regulation, according to published reports, say there is nothing in the new rules that would prevent businessowners from simply keeping the tips to complete capital works or as profit. They say it is wrong to think employers will share tips with back-of-house employees because they are already paying these workers enough to attract and keep them in those jobs. “But it is a good change,” Quintana said.

–Read the rest of this article in Caribbean Business’ epaper here.


Boy Scouts P.R. Council Presents 2016 Distinguished Citizen

Camaraderie, celebration and great pride for the movement they represent reigned at the presentation before local press of the Boy Scouts Puerto Rico Council’s 2016 Distinguished Citizen. This year, the honor was bestowed upon engineer José Domingo Pérez Muñiz, who was accompanied at the activity by his wife, son and friends. Waleska

Waleska Rivera, Boy Scouts P.R. Council’s 2015 Distinguished Citizen; and José Domingo Pérez Muñiz, Boy Scouts P.R. Council’s 2016 Distinguished Citizen

Waleska Rivera, Boy Scouts P.R. Council’s 2015 Distinguished Citizen; and José Domingo Pérez Muñiz, Boy Scouts P.R. Council’s 2016 Distinguished Citizen

Rivera, the 2015 Distinguished Citizen, talked about the importance of this recognition and had high praise for this year’s selection. Rivera congratulated Pérez Muñiz, along with Distinguished Citizens from previous years such as attorney Héctor Mayol and Marcos Vidal.

The proud recipient of this recognition spoke to Caribbean Business and expressed the pride he felt, more so because he was once a Boy Scout and even reached the highest level in the organization, Eagle Scout.

“It is a special feeling, a recognition that touches the core of any citizen in any country,” Pérez Muñiz said. “But for one who participated in the Scout movement when [he was] barely beginning his adolescence, it has a double meaning because one sees that the things upon which one has based his principles, values and life since he was young have borne fruit, and not only are they adequate for one’s self, but also adequate or valued by the rest of the community and citizens.”

Miguel A. Ferrer, Caribbean Business publisher; José ‘Pepe’ Izquierdo, Gala chairman; José Domingo Pérez Muñiz, Boy Scouts Puerto Rico Council’s 2016 Distinguished Citizen

Miguel A. Ferrer, Caribbean Business publisher; José ‘Pepe’ Izquierdo, Gala chairman; José Domingo Pérez Muñiz, Boy Scouts Puerto Rico Council’s 2016 Distinguished Citizen

Pérez Muñiz, who presides over the Caribe Tecno company, was also part of the staff of Camp Guajataka for some decades, and does not tire in promoting the Scout movement.

“Scouting is an organization for forming citizens, where from the earliest stages, the importance of being a good citizen at home is taught, of taking part in the day-to-day chores, and from there it evolves into being a good citizen in the community, adding to the neighborhood, the municipality and eventually being a good citizen in the complete sense of the word, a good citizen in the nation,” Pérez Muñiz said.

Engineer José “Pepe” Izquierdo, the Gala chairman, invited all present to commit themselves to the council’s fundraising campaign. The activity was held at the Bodega de Méndez, and the Distinguished Citizen Gala Dinner will take place May 21 at the Condado Plaza Hilton Hotel. For more information, call 787-790-0323.