Case #2212.4

At the Center of the Storm: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and the Response to Hurricane Maria Practitioner Guide

Publication Date: March 5, 2021
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This guide accompanies HKS Case 2212.0. with other levels of government, donors, and aid agencies. This case profiles how Carmen Yulín Cruz, Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, led her city’s response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in the fall of 2017.

After briefly providing background on the territory’s relationship with the rest of the US, Cruz’s political career, and the consequences of the economic recession that San Juan and the rest of Puerto Rico endured leading up to Maria, the case details how the hurricane caused unprecedented damage when it slammed into the island. It then recounts how Mayor Cruz and other San Juan officials rode out the storm and began coming to terms with Maria’s terrible toll. It stresses the difficulty they faced in getting a sense of the scale and nature of the destruction, given that the storm had brought down almost all communication systems and the island’s electrical grid.

Facing so much uncertainty, San Juan officials had little choice but to improvise a response. The case depicts how Cruz and municipal workers self-deployed throughout the city to assess conditions and provide aid. It also illustrates how, over time, they began to more formally organize the city’s response, launching and finetuning an array of activities.

Despite the city’s efforts, however, support from the territorial and federal governments was slow to materialize, and the limited amount of aid that did arrive proved woefully inadequate. The main part of the case concludes by depicting the tensions associated with this issue, which reached a boiling point when President Trump’s Acting Secretary of Homeland Security publicly characterized the response to Maria as a “good news story”—a striking disconnect from what Cruz and others were experiencing on the ground. Readers are placed in the mayor’s shoes as she considers how best to respond. Ending at this decision point, the case prompts them to evaluate Cruz’s options as she seeks to accelerate the pace of relief while accounting for Puerto Rico’s dependency on Washington for aid and support.

The epilogue describes how Cruz chose to proceed. It then depicts the consequences of her decision, focusing on how her actions affected relations between San Juan and the federal government as well as their implications for the overall response.

Learning Objective:

This case asks students to think about the tasks and challenges associated with mayoral leadership during a major crisis and to consider how this type of leadership differs from overseeing city government during normal operations or a routine emergency. More specifically, it seeks to advance readers’ understanding of several key roles a mayor may need to play during a crisis, including:

(1) griever-in-chief (i.e., representing and consoling the community and keeping it together);
(2) central manager and coordinator of city efforts (i.e., overseeing the emergency response and coordinating the efforts of city departments with agencies from other levels of government and NGOs); and
(3) chief advocate and negotiator (i.e., advocating for and negotiating relief efforts and support with other levels of government, donors, and aid agencies).

In a broader sense, the case aims to help mayors and other senior public officials reflect on how well prepared they are for crises and how they can better position themselves to direct response efforts as threats emerge and materialize.

Other Details

Case Author(s):
David W. Giles, Arnold M. Howitt, Herman B. "Dutch" Leonard
Faculty Leads:
Arnold M. Howitt
Pages (incl. exhibits):
North America
Funding Source:
Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative