Seeing more clearly: Communities transforming towards justice in post-hurricane Puerto Rico


This study explored how a process of community transformation emerged in post-hurricane Puerto Rico. Most post-disaster research focuses on community and personal losses while little is known about strengths and positive outcomes. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, vast structural injustices in Puerto Rico were made visible. Government aid for recovery was insufficient. Further, small, socioeconomically challenged communities received aid months after the main metropolitan area. In the midst of this collective trauma, accounts arose of transformative initiatives promoting climate justice and participatory democracy emerging across Puerto Rico. In this grounded theory study, residents from different communities in Puerto Rico (N=69) shared their post-disaster experiences. Results revealed a phase-based theoretical model of post-disaster community transformation. After experiencing collective trauma(s) — including both natural disasters and unjust delivery of recovery aid — community residents unanimously reported helping one another. In communities where leaders’ vision extended beyond reconstruction to pre-disaster levels, a process of transformation began. A series of psychological mechanisms facilitated or inhibited this process. Facilitators included a sense of community, posttraumatic growth, and critical consciousness. Barriers included leader burnout and interpersonal tensions. Community psychologists who are committed to climate justice issues can play a key role in strengthening post-disaster community transformation efforts through research, policy, and programming.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i24212113v6i2-2p22

Keywords: transformation, posttraumatic growth, climate change, psychology, Puerto Rico, critical consciousness, emergent disaster communities


Bonilla, Y. (2020). The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA. Political Geography.

Comas-Díaz, L. (2007). Ethnopolitical psychology: Healing and transformation. In E. Aldarondo (Ed.), Advancing social justice through clinical practice (pp. 91–118). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Comas-Díaz, L., Lykes, M. B., & Alarcón, R. D. (1998). Ethnic conflict and the psychology of liberation in Guatemala, Peru, and Puerto Rico. American Psychologist, 53(7), 778–792.

Comisión para la prevención de suicidio. (2018). Estadísticas preliminares de casos de suicidio de Puerto Rico. Estadisticas%20Suicidio/Febrero%202018.pdf

Cortés, R. (2019). Se pierden los empleos “full-time”. [Full-time jobs are lost]. El Nuevo Día, 4–5.

Cox, L. (2011). How do we keep going? Activist burnout and personal sustainability in social movements.

Cox, R. S., & Perry, K. M. E. (2011). Like a fish out of water: Reconsidering disaster recovery and the role of place and social capital in community disaster resilience. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48(3-4), 395-411.

Dalton, J., & Wolfe, S. (2012). Competencies for community psychology practice. The Community Psychologist, 45(4), 8-14.

DeYoung, S. E., & Peters, M. (2016). My community, my preparedness: The role of sense of place, community, and confidence in government in disaster readiness. International Journal of Mass Emergencies & Disasters, 34(2), 250-282.

Draucker, C. B., Martsolf, D. S., Ross, R., & Rusk, T. B. (2007). Pearls, pith, and provocation theoretical sampling and category development in grounded theory. Qualitative Health Research, 17(8), 1137–1148.

Drury, J., Carter, H., Cocking, C., Ntontis, E., Tekin Guven, S., & Amlôt, R. (2019). Facilitating collective psychosocial resilience in the public in emergencies: Twelve recommendations based on the social identity approach. Frontiers in Public Health, 7, 141.

Evans, S. D., Hanlin, C. E., & Prilleltensky, I. (2007). Blending ameliorative and transformative approaches in human service organizations: A case study. Journal of Community Psychology, 35(3), 329-346.

Ferré, I. M., Negrón, S., Shultz, J. M., Schwartz, S. J., Kossin, J. P., & Pantin, H. (2018). Hurricane María’s impact on Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico: Community needs and mental health assessment six months postimpact. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 1-6.

Freire, P. (1977). Pedagogía del oprimido [Pedagogy of the oppressed]. Siglo XXI.

Fritz, C. E. (1961). Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies. Historical and comparative disaster series #10. Disaster Research Center.

Ganz, M. (2010). Leading change: Leadership, organization, and social movements. In N. Nohria & R. Khurana, Handbook of leadership theory and practice (pp. 527-568). Harvard Business Press.

Ganz, M. (2004). Organizing as leadership. In G. R. Goethals, G. J. Sorenson, & J. M. Burns, Encyclopedia of Leadership (pp. 1134-1144). Sage Publications.

García-López, G. A. (2018). The multiple layers of environmental injustice in contexts of (un)natural disasters: The case of Puerto Rico post-hurricane María. Environmental Justice, 11(3), 101–108.

Gorski, P. C. (2015). Relieving burnout and the “martyr syndrome” among social justice education activists: The implications and effects of mindfulness. The Urban Review, 47(4), 696–716.

Halifax, J. (2018). Standing at the edge: Finding freedom where fear and courage meet. Flatiron Books.

Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico. (2018). Informe sobre desarrollo humano Puerto Rico 2016 [Report on human development in Puerto Rico]. San Juan, PR: Author.

Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. Free Press.

Jin, Y., Xu, J., Liu, H., & Liu, D. (2014). Posttraumatic stress disorder and posttraumatic growth among adult survivors of Wenchuan earthquake after 1 year: Prevalence and correlates. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 28(1), 67–73.

Kang, Y., Gray, J. R., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). The nondiscriminating heart: Lovingkindness meditation training decreases implicit intergroup bias. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1306–1313.

Klein, N. (2018). The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists. Haymarket Books.

Lamba-Nieves, D. (2018). De resiliencia a resistencia. [From resilience to resistance]. El Nuevo Día, 3.

Laska, S., & Morrow, B. H. (2006). Social vulnerabilities and Hurricane Katrina: An unnatural disaster in New Orleans. Marine Technology Society Journal, 40(4), 16–26.

Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias: The Role of Reduced Automaticity of Responding. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 284–291.

Luthar, S. S., Ciccheti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71(3), 543–562.

Manove, E. E., Lowe, S. R., Bonumwezi, J., Preston, J., Waters, M. C., & Rhodes, J. E. (2019). Posttraumatic growth in low-income Black mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(2), 144.

Martin, L. L., & Tesser, A. (1996). Clarifying our thoughts. In R. S. Wyer, Jr. (Ed.), Advances in social cognition (Vol. 9, pp. 189–208). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Martínez-Otero, H. & Seda-Irizarry, I. J. (2015). The origins of the Puerto Rican debt crisis. Jacobin.

Montero, M., Sonn, C. C., & Burton, M. (2017). Community psychology and liberation psychology: A creative synergy for an ethical and transformative praxis. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, C. B. Keys, & M. Shinn (Eds.), APA handbook of community psychology: Theoretical foundations, core concepts, and emerging challenges (pp. 149–167). American Psychological Association.

Morris, A. D., & Staggenborg, S. (2004). Leadership in social movements. In D. A. Snow, S. A. Soule, & H. Kriesi, The Blackwell companion to social movements (pp. 171-196). Blackwell Publishing Limited.

Nelson, G., Kloos, B., & Ornelas, J. (2017). Creating transformative change in community mental health: Contributions from community psychology. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, C. B. Keys, & M. Shinn (Eds.), APA handbook of community psychology: Methods for community research and action for diverse groups and issues (pp. 377–392). American Psychological Association.

Norris, F., Stevens, S., Pfefferbaum, B., Wyche, K., & Pfefferbaum, R. (2008). Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41(1–2), 127-150.

Ntontis, E., Drury, J., Amlôt, E., Rubin, B., & Williams, R. (2019). What lies beyond social capital? The role of social psychology in building community resilience to climate change. Traumatology.

Ntontis, E., Drury, J., Amlôt, R., Rubin, G. J., & Williams, R. (2018). Emergent social identities in a flood: Implications for community psychosocial resilience. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 28(1), 3–14.

Oliver-Smith, A. (1999). The brotherhood of pain: Theoretical and applied perspectives on post-disaster solidarity. In A. Oliver-Smith & S. A. Hoffman (Eds.), The Angry Earth (pp. 170–186). Routledge.

Pelling, M., & Manuel-Navarrete, D. (2011). From resilience to transformation: The adaptive cycle in two Mexican urban centers. Ecology and Society, 16(2).

Pelling, M., O’Brien, K., & Matyas, D. (2015). Adaptation and transformation. Climatic Change, 133(1), 113-127.

Prilleltensky, I. (2014). Meaning-making, mattering, and thriving in community psychology: From co-optation to amelioration and transformation. Psychosocial Intervention, 23(2), 151–154.

Rasmussen, A., Akinsulure-Smith, A. M., & Chu, T. (2016). Grounded theory. In L. A. Jason & D. S. Glenwick (Eds.), Handbook of methodological approaches to community-based research (pp. 23–32). Oxford University Press.

Riemer, M., Reich, S.M., Evans, S.D., Nelson, G. & Prilleltensky, I. (2020). Community Psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being (3rd edition). Red Globe Press - Macmillan.

Riemer, M., & Reich, S. M. (2011). Community Psychology and Global Climate Change: Introduction to the Special Section. American Journal of Community Psychology, 47(3–4), 349–353.

Serrano-García, I. (2020). Resilience, Coloniality, and Sovereign Acts: The Role of Community Activism. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1–10.

Singla, D. R., Kohrt, B. A., Murray, L. K., Anand, A., Chorpita, B. F., & Patel, V. (2017). Psychological treatments for the world: Lessons from low- and middle-income countries. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13(1), 149–181.

Society for Community Research and Action. (2020). What is community psychology.

Solnit, R. (2009). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Penguin Books.

Skalski, J. E., & Hardy, S. A. (2013). Disintegration, new consciousness, and discontinuous transformation: A qualitative investigation of quantum change. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(2), 159–177.

Tedeschi, R. G. (1999). Violence transformed: Posttraumatic growth in survivors and their societies. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4(3), 319–341.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18.

Trott, C. D. (2016). Constructing alternatives: Envisioning a critical psychology of prefigurative politics. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 4(1), 266-285.

Tormos, F. (2018). The politics of survival in Puerto Rico: The balance of forces in the wake of Hurricane María. Alternautas, 5(1), 79–94.

USGCRP. (2019). Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II. US Global Change Research Program.

Vélez-Vélez, R., & Villarrubia-Mendoza, J. (2018). Cambio desde abajo y desde adentro: Notes on Centros de Apoyo Mutuo in post-María Puerto Rico. Latino Studies, 16(4), 542–547.

Viniki, D. (2018). How Trump favored Texas over Puerto Rico. Politico.

Wieling, E., & Mittal, M. (2008). JMFT Special Section on Mass Trauma. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(2), 127–131.

Wlodarczyk, A., Basabe, N., Páez, D., Reyes, C., Villagrán, L., Madariaga, C., Palacio, J., & Martínez, F. (2016). Communal coping and posttraumatic growth in a context of natural disasters in Spain, Chile, and Colombia, Sage Journals, 50(4), 325-355. 1177/1069397116663857

Wlodarczyk, A., Basabe, N., Páez, D., Villagrán, L., & Reyes, C. (2017). Individual and collective posttraumatic growth in victims of natural disasters: A multidimensional perspective. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 22(5), 371–384.

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License.