President Roosevelt created the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) on May 28, 1935, with Executive Order No. 7057. The power to create this new agency had been given to him by Congress, through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. The purpose of the PRRA was to “initiate, formulate, administer and supervise a program of approved projects for providing relief and work relief and for increasing employment within Puerto Rico.” The agency was placed within the Department of the Interior and Ernest H. Gruening was put in charge .
Puerto Rico was hit hard by the Great Depression and also by the 1928 San Felipe II (or Okeechobee) hurricane and the 1932 San Ciprian hurricane. San Ciprian killed at least 257 people and injured nearly 5,000 others. It destroyed 45,000 homes, damaged or destroyed many thousands of other structures, killed half-a-million animals, and caused $20 million in crop losses (about $342 million in 2014 dollars) . The PRRA—funded through various emergency relief appropriations and eventually a Puerto Rico Revolving Fund—came at just the right time .
The bulk of PRRA projects took place between 1935 and 1941. During this time, the agency funded and administered a wide variety of projects that employed large numbers of jobless men and women . Schools were built and teachers hired; new buildings were added to the University of Puerto Rico; medical facilities were built, repaired, or improved; low-cost housing was constructed (including the “Eleanor Roosevelt Development”); agricultural land was rehabilitated and cattle were freed from tick and tuberculosis problems; reforestation projects were carried out with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); hydroelectric and rural electrification systems were greatly enhanced; and much more. The PRRA also started several businesses in an effort to jump-start the island’s economy, including a cement factory, a rug cooperative, two sugar mills, and a vanilla curing plant . All told, the PRRA spent at least $80 million in Puerto Rico (over $1 billion in 2014 dollars) .
The PRRA proved to be very successful. In 1937 the Governor of Puerto Rico reported that the PRRA had benefitted “every section of the Island. Employment has been furnished to thousands of people, public improvements have been made in every municipality, health and sanitary conditions are better than ever before, and the living standards of many families have been improved so that they now have a better outlook on life…and prospects for greater economic freedom” . A year later, the governor reported that the PRRA had helped make “it possible to enroll [in public schools] the largest number of pupils in Puerto Rico’s history” . More recently, a researcher at City University of New York concluded: “Designed by Puerto Rican engineers and built by Puerto Rican workers, PRRA public works projects made concrete contributions to the physical security of millions of Puerto Ricans through the construction of hurricane-proof houses, schools, hospitals, roads, sewers, waterworks, and rural electrification networks” . Further, many PRRA projects are still in use today, such as the Dos Bocas hydroelectric dam, an important part of Puerto Rico’s water supply system .
After 1941, the PRRA received less funding, started fewer new projects, and instead focused on finishing and maintaining existing projects . In 1953, a joint resolution of Congress ordered the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to terminate the PRRA. He did so on February 15, 1955 .
The PRRA was just one of several New Deal efforts to help Puerto Rico. There was also substantial assistance from the Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, National Youth Administration, Farm Credit Administration, Home Owners Loan Corporation, and other agencies .
Sources: (1) “Executive Order 7057 Establishing the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, accessed September 19, 2015. (2) Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico, 1933,” pp. 5 and 157-159. (3) See, e.g., Forty-First Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico, 1941, p. 49. (4) See fact no. 11 at “Facts About the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration,” New Deal Network, accessed September 21, 2015 (a report from the Information Research Section of the PRRA). (5) See generally, annual reports of the governor of Puerto Rico, fiscal years 1936 through 1941. (6) This is a rough estimate based on $69 million spent from emergency relief appropriations from 1935 through 1941, plus amounts ranging from $463,000 to $1.5 million spent from the Puerto Rico Revolving Fund from 1942 through 1954 (figures from the governor of Puerto Rico reports and several U.S. Department of the Interior reports, 1935-1954). (7) Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico, 1937, p. 55. (8) Thirty-Eighth Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico, 1938, p. 37. (9) Geoff G. Burrows, “The New Deal in Puerto Rico: Public Works, Public Health, and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, 1935-1955,” dissertation abstract, City University of New York, 2014, accessed September 21, 2015. (10) See, e.g., “Sedimentation survey of Lago Dos Bocas, Utuado, Puerto Rico, January 2010,” published in 2014, U.S. Geological Survey, accessed September 21, 2015, and “Lago Dos Bocas at Damsite,” U.S. Geological Survey, accessed September, 21, 2015. (11) See, e.g., Forty-Fifth Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico, 1945, p. 68. (12) “Records of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration,” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed September 21, 2015. (13) Thirty-Ninth Annual Report of the Governor of Puerto Rico, 1939, pp. 75-76. (Note: all annual reports of the governor of Puerto Rico can be found at http://www.hathitrust.org/.)