A Year After Maria: Lessons of Survival

September 19, 2018

September 20 marks one year since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, just 14 days after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma. Maria, a category 5 hurricane, not only destroyed Puerto Rico’s energy grid and communications infrastructure, but it also upended many lives and left a permanent scar on everyone who survived it.

We are still living with its effects, from an unstable power grid that needs to be redesigned from the ground up, to a collective sense of PTSD that compels us to buy excessive amounts of water and fuel whenever a new storm forms in the Atlantic Ocean. But Maria also left us with an advanced degree in resilience. We learned how to quickly adjust to difficult situations and plow through. The most important lesson that came out of our experience: Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. It’s too easy to fall prey to inaction after a big disaster like a hurricane, but to survive we must resist that urge and act. Otherwise, things just get worse, and inaction leads to further inaction.

Here are five lessons I learned over the past year that stood out, especially in my role as an entrepreneur running a business:

1. Focus on people

First and foremost, make sure your employees and their families are safe and help them in any way you can. The day after the storm, we checked in on all of our employees to make sure that they and their families were safe. We continued to check in with them throughout the emergency and provided as much help as we could. For example, when drinking water was hard to get, we arranged for water gallons to be delivered to the office for everyone, and when cash was scarce, we distributed payroll cash advances. While it goes without saying that employees are the number one asset of any company, when a disaster strikes, the typical employer/employee relationship transforms and becomes one of humanitarian concern.

2. It’s all about communication

Make sure to communicate with your customers, partners and employees, early and often. There is a lot of misinformation, especially after a big disaster like a hurricane. It’s important that you accurately explain the situation to your customers, partners, and employees as well as the plans and courses of action you are putting in place. By letting them know what they can expect, you can help assuage any concerns they may have. Last year, it was heart-warming to see how our customers not only understood the gravity of the situation, but also opened their doors to us with office space and other offers of help.

3. Contingency plans are required

Never underestimate the need for a contingency plan and the importance of communicating it to all your stakeholders. While the contingency plan will likely evolve once a disaster strikes, much of it will still be applicable and it will help you to get things underway quickly.

4. You learn who your true partners are

In addition to communicating with customers, it’s important to share your situation with partners, yet not all of them may understand the true magnitude of your plight. We were surprised to learn that some may focus on your commitments to them and hold you accountable regardless of the circumstances, while other are completely understanding and offer help. You’ll probably spend more time managing concerns from some partners than customers who see the effort and continued commitment that you are providing them. In the end, you will quickly figure out who your true partners are.

5. Always help others, no matter what

Whenever possible, help others. After an event like a category 5 hurricane everyone is affected, and only by helping each other can everyone make it through. That includes competitors, too. When the hurricane hit, we all shared resources and the Internet with partners and competitors alike. And, no amount of help is too small — even if it seems trivial to you, it may make a big difference to whomever you help.


Finally, after looking back at this past year and talking to entrepreneurs who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I have concluded that the major difference between those who make it in a disaster and those who don’t is mainly based on one thing: never giving up.

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One Response to “A Year After Maria: Lessons of Survival”

  1. Alejandro Valdecasa

    Hi Carlos,

    Words cannot express how sorry we are about the recent tragic events that have touched you and your employees so deeply. Your loss is huge, and we can only imagine the hurt you feel. Wovenware has been in my thoughts. I’m happy to know you guys are alive and safe. It’s not fair and it really sucks, to see Puerto Rico destroyed.

    Agile methodology originally used for software development, is now being successfully implemented in other business domains. If you’ve performed agile software development previously, and I know you have, you’ve probably identified the parallels of the model you describe in the five lessons you learned over the past year with software development. All software projects have constraints. Similar to the situation during the Hurrican Maria in puerto rico, the number-one constraint is frequently time. The people in Puerto Rico had a few days to prepare for Hurricane Maria. Software projects are often limited to a few days, weeks, or months, after which they’re of no value. Like a Christmas gift delivered on February, all the quality work and effort invested in the project are worthless if you don’t meet your most critical priority.

    When you perform software projects, you can lose track of your priorities, things can get muddy, and low-value work can hold up project delivery. Agile software development asks you to follow your five lessons learned by identifying what is critical and focusing on delivering to meet the critical need as soon as possible.

    The Hurricane Maria also reinforces another agile tenet: you should expect change, you should embrace change, and you should be ready to plan and adapt frequently. The Puerto Rico rescuers adapted to broken energy grid, communication lines blocking their path, and the need to reduce the time required to redesign and stabilize a fishing power grid. In software development, you encounter similar situations. You discover a missing requirement, you identify a technical constraint that prevents you from following your initial design, or a third party delivers their part of the project later than expected. These types of issues happen on every software project; and to ensure success, agile asks you not to be surprised but to continue to perform by adapting to the reality of the situation.

    Finally, your five lessons demonstrates goodwill and collaborative team work. Ideas come from all team members, such as the arranged to keep the water at office. Goodwill and collaboration were also demonstrated when the payroll was distributed. Wovenware didn’t ask the team to spend days waiting for results; instead, the company trusted their employees and quickly delivered the fishing assets.

    Alejandro Valdecasas