Puerto Rico’s governor is learning hard-fought leadership lessons

Biomedical researcher Ricardo Rosselló was working on stem cell research. Then he was elected governor of Puerto Rico. A year later, two hurricanes hit.

Puerto Rico’s governor is learning hard-fought leadership lessons
Puerto Rico Govenor Ricardo Rossello [Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

Ricardo Rosselló was not supposed to be in politics. He was a mathlete and a tennis player and loved problem solving, a combination of interests and innate talent that helped him earn a spot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he studied bioengineering and neuroscience (and was captain of the varsity tennis team), going on to earn a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan and completed postgraduate work in stem cell research at Duke University. He then cofounded a company called Beijing Prosperous Biopharm that developed drugs to fight cancer, neurodegeneration problems, diabetes, and HIV.


“I was happily embarking on that journey,” says Rosselló. “And at one point there was a certain set of events occurring in Puerto Rico that called me back.” That call involved a 2012 plebiscite that would allow for Puerto Ricans to vote for or against the current colonial territorial status. “It has always been one of my biggest focuses is to make sure that Puerto Rico transitions out of the decolonial status and becomes the 51st state,” says Rosselló.

Related: Here are 10 great reasons to do business in Puerto Rico right now

A scientific approach to solving government problems

He returned to the island and got involved in that process, and then ended up staying. “I started thinking about all of the challenges that we had in Puerto Rico and asked myself the question, what if I put the scientific approach to solving government problems?” he says. Rosselló set out to apply his engineering mind-set and eye for solutions to transform Puerto Rico. “I started studying best practices around the world,” says Rosselló. “Going to Finland and studying the education model, going to Estonia and seeing their e-government structure, going to Florida and seeing some of their public safety initiatives.”

As Rosselló set out to run for governor, he and his team put together an executable plan to make Puerto Rico enticing to the private sector, pushing development and innovation, and setting the island on a path to be a destination for not only tourists, but also talent, business, and thought leaders. “As we ran the campaign, we made everybody that was running on our ticket commit to executing that plan, commit to making the policies and structural reforms that many people thought were necessary for Puerto Rico,” he explains.

And then, the hurricanes

In 2016, he was elected governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and immediately set out to make his vision a reality. While he ran into a few roadblocks (“The forces of status quo are quite strong,” admits Rosselló), he was able to pass what Rosselló calls a “gold standard” public-private partnership law. They passed cut budgets, reduced political appointments, set equal pay for equal work for the government and its contractors, streamlined the permitting process for businesses, and outsourced the promotion of tourism and investment to outside agencies, all within the first few months of the new administration. Things were on track. And then Hurricane Irma hit, and Hurricane Maria just days later.


Related: FEMA decides Puerto Rico doesn’t need any more assistance—these stats disagree

As a scientist-turned-governor of an island in the Caribbean, Rosselló had a plan to deal with hurricane fallout. He did not have a plan to deal with two massive storms blasting the island in rapid succession. “Irma was somewhat devastating, but we’re able to bounce back, so much so that Puerto Rico became a hub to rescue other U.S. citizens stranded across the Caribbean,” says Rosselló. “But then Maria came.” Maria rapidly went from a tropical storm to a category five hurricane. “When I heard it was a category five storm, my mind went into modeling mode,” says Rosselló, but it’s hard to apply the scientific method to a category five hurricane, even though his team started planning “about four months” prior to the start of hurricane season. “We prepared for the worst, but this was really an unprecedented event,” he said.

“We had very little access to roads, no access to ports or airports. There were no lights, no electricity. There was very little access to water, no comms, radio or otherwise,” says Rosselló. The tail of the storm meant they couldn’t fly over the island for days to inspect the damage, and everything was made more difficult due to rain. (“So much rain,” Rosselló says, sighing.)

As Rosselló’s team rescued people off rooftops, mobilized police and the national guard, and tried to ensure people had food, water, and electricity, it took a few days for the magnitude of the situation to sink in. “Some areas looked like a storm [had hit],” Rosselló says. ” Others looked like a bomb was dropped.”

Even then, flying over the island in a plane, the true destructive power of the storm wasn’t obvious. In fact, it took eight months for a Harvard study to come out that showed the death toll of the hurricanes was closer to a staggering 4,600 people, far surpassing the official death toll of 64. The study notes that 83% of the households in Puerto Rico were without electrical power for the time period looked at, more than 100 days, from the date of the hurricane until the end of 2017, which contributed to the number of deaths. While some critics claim that Rosselló has been hiding the true numbers, he disagrees.


“We want the real numbers to come out,” he said at a press conference recently. “We have always said that the official number [of deaths] will definitely increase.” He also doesn’t dispute that both the island’s leaders and the federal government were “subpar,” and needed to be much faster and more efficient in the future. However, Harvard’s numbers are based on estimates from household surveys, not actual records of deaths, creating a level of uncertainty in the number, according to Rosselló. The Government of Puerto Rico has commissioned a report from the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health that will hopefully help narrow that uncertainty and find the true cost of the storms.

What about the next hurricane?

As the new hurricane season gets under way, Rosselló is still trying to rebuild from the last storms. “Our task has been to make sure we get all of the lessons learned from this event,” he says. “We’ve been working in the past four to five months on revisiting everything that could’ve been done better, that needs better infrastructure, and that prepares us better for [this] hurricane season.” Rosselló is also working with the federal government to analyze emergency response, working alongside FEMA to ensure significant improvements are made. “The hope is that Puerto Rico can be a model for the nation as a whole to make sure that the lessons learned here not only just stay in Puerto Rico but can also be applied everywhere,” he says.

As a newcomer to political leadership, it would be understandable if Rosselló wanted to curl up in a ball for a bit to rethink his life choices. “Many people have asked me that, and the reality is that I’m very results driven. I was really looking to problem-solve,” he says. “This was a fast-paced, problem-solving effort, and I was making sure that our team was executing appropriately.”

Related: During Puerto Rico’s blackout, solar microgrids kept the lights on

As hurricane season begins again, Puerto Rico is better prepared for the worst, as much as they can be. “We want to make sure that we have a better, more effective response for next time,” says Rosselló. To that end, the government has developed an energy restoration plan, a public health initiative, and a “more robust commodity distribution strategy where even if the roads are blocked, as what happened with Maria, will be able to get through to all of our folks,” Rosselló explains, noting that they plan a dry run at some point in June.


One thing Rosselló knows, though, is that if a hurricane comes to Puerto Rico this year, “the energy grid unfortunately will suffer again.” And if the weather cooperates, it is one of the first things on Rosselló’s deferred agenda to fix, and he is hoping for an outside company to come in and take over, since the island has a considerable debt load ($73 billion by some estimates) and does not have the resources to rebuild on its own, despite billions in hurricane recovery aid coming to the island. “I don’t see privatizing as a solution, it is a mechanism,” says Rosselló.

While Rosselló is still trying to push through the platform he campaigned on, his priorities have shifted out of necessity. “Maria is a game changer. No doubt about it,” he says. “I’ve been working on three tracks since the storm. First was the immediate emergency phase, next was the path toward normalcy phase, and the final one is the vision to transform and execute that transformation phase.” His vision has been hampered in part by the federal control board that oversees the finances of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt government. They set the island’s fiscal plan and the austerity measures, which in part led to widespread protests in San Juan, ending in a clash with riot police wielding tear gas and pepper spray.

Despite being in recovery mode, Rosselló has managed to streamline government, enact education reform (not without controversy), increase visibility on budget and management issues, and is hustling to lure startups, corporations, and digital nomads to come work on the island. He’s also still fighting for statehood, a cause he ardently supports.

As hurricane season kicks off once again, though, Rosselló admits, “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

About the author

Melissa Locker is a writer and world renowned fish telepathist.