Skip to main content

Case Study

Impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico

Understanding the trauma and challenges facing citizens across Puerto Rico and how they’re putting their lives back together.

Two months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017, PerryUndem – in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation – traveled to Puerto Rico to conduct focus groups and interviews with individuals affected by the storm. We wanted to see how the area was doing in the earliest months of the recovery. Then, in 2018 and 2019, we returned again to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to see how the situation had evolved. We wanted to check-in on the rebuilding efforts and whether people could better access the support they needed. We also spoke with local stakeholders and officials to get a sense of how systems were operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. These research trips involved significant logistical challenges, but we were able to conduct successful, meaningful work in an area ravaged by Maria.

Services Provided

  • Coordinated recruitment for focus groups and interviews
  • Helped moderate in-person focus groups and interviews
  • Designed focus group guide
  • Helped analyze the results
  • Produced video stories from the interviews

The Objectives

We wanted to provide the client with firsthand experiences of the situation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. We needed to make sure we captured the voices of people across the area. It was important that we could tell impactful stories and so, we used interviews and focus groups to hear these experiences. We spoke with local citizens, politicians, health care providers, and other stakeholders to get a full picture of conditions on the ground.

We also wanted to understand how stakeholders were viewing the recovery efforts and how the health care system was holding up/adapting. To better show what people were going through, we filmed interviews with participants and created a short film of these conversations.

The Challenges

Conducting research in Puerto Rico following the disaster was a daunting prospect. We had no history in the area, so we had to start from scratch. This meant finding and building a relationship with a local research partner, coordinating logistics, travel, and then leading the research.

There were still blackouts, blocked roads, and most businesses were still closed. We traveled to remote parts of the Island to make sure were heard from those hit hardest. Interviews and focus groups were held in restaurants, town squares, office conference rooms, and health clinics, anywhere that had electricity and could accommodate us. We had to be flexible when on the ground – changing schedules, finding new people to interview, and exploring the island to improve our understanding of the situation.

Our Approach

We found a local research partner to work with us throughout this process. Our partner, Marisol, helped with planning, recruiting, and moderation of our focus groups and interviews.

The PerryUndem team traveled to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands along with KFF staff to conduct the focus groups and interviews. The PerryUndem team, along with our partner Marisol, would lead the interviews and focus groups. We would then write up our findings from the research for our client and they integrated these findings into a public report.

What We Found

Many were struggling to recover emotionally and financially from devastating hurricanes.

People had experienced physical, mental, and financial trauma as a result of the hurricane. The systems were struggling under economic pressure. Federal relief funds had made a difference, but it was not enough. The area was already dealing with financial challenges before the hurricane – and those issues were only further exacerbated. The health care system was also struggling to adjust and meet needs. With every trip the health care system seemed more able to provide services. However, they were still dealing with limitations and we identified ongoing gaps in services. But, we also were struck by the strength of local people trying to regroup and rebuild after tragedy – and we heard meaningful, powerful stories from people on the ground.

The research was well-received by the client, KFF, and our initial 2017 research led to return trips in 2018 and 2019. KFF used our research for briefings on the subject and the results were made public by the foundation for policymakers and the press.

What We Learned

We were able to adapt and work within difficult and new situations.

The client originally asked us to conduct research with individuals who had fled Puerto Rico after the hurricanes and come to states like Florida and New York. They did not think research on the Island itself was possible due to the damaged infrastructure and widespread power outages. But we found a researcher based in Puerto Rico who was up and running and willing to partner with us. This made all of the difference to the client – to be able to be on the ground, visually see the destruction, and listen to the people who lived through it and remained on the Island.

We ramped up research quickly, identified a valuable local partner, and showed our willingness to take on interesting, challenging research and find a way to succeed. Most firms in this space cannot conduct this type of research.