Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Maria

This is the sixth installment from our new commentary paper entitled, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” The full commentary will be shared on June 1 to mark the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, the strongest to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years.[i] Puerto Rico is still striving to gain recovery momentum due to extreme problems with local coordination and persistent power grid weaknesses.

The implications of the power grid failure are hard to understate. One article, “After Four Months, Much of Puerto Rico Still Dark and Damaged,” illustrated the challenges and status of Puerto Rico.

What We Knew and Learned

Ricardo Alvarez-Diaz, president of the Puerto Rico Builders Association, stated that about 55% of all structures in Puerto Rico haven’t been built to code partly because the government lacks an adequate process for code certification during the building process. [ii] Mr. Alvarez-Diaz also said that the approximately 250,000 housing units damaged in the latest hurricane season would have been much less if they had all been built to code.[iii]

We knew that Puerto Rico was vulnerable to hurricanes and power outages as well as other perils, especially earthquakes. FLASH and FEMA were in Puerto Rico in August 2017 conducting Ready Business workshops in San Juan and Mayagüez to help businesses address these very threats through preparedness. The workshops focused on the 2016 power outage[iv] and how it affected local businesses and the economy.

What we did not expect was the depth of the building code administration and enforcement challenges in Puerto Rico. One of our team members joined the FEMA-led Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) in December 2017, bringing his perspective as a general contractor, former building official of a large jurisdiction in Florida, floodplain manager, and seasoned mitigation advocate. The first question on the ground was, “What building codes are used in Puerto Rico?” The consensus is that the code is good and strong, but it lacks consistent administration and enforcement processes. The enforcement gap is also typical in many areas of the United States.

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, but its building code is analogous to other “statewide” building codes, although it should be called territory-wide in Puerto Rico’s case. According to those on the ground, the permitting and inspection system in place does not yield consistently inspected structures. This is evidenced by the abundance of “informal construction” in Puerto Rico, or construction in which building codes or permits were not followed. Adding real penalties for work without a permit, hiring local inspectors, and setting up building officials with training in the I-Codes could make a material improvement in both every day as well as disaster resilience.

In 1998, Hurricane Georges (a category 1 hurricane) served as a catalyst for mitigation efforts in Puerto Rico, but early evidence from Maria indicates that some of the efforts didn’t go as far as they could have.

Observations on the ground painted a picture of opportunities for improvement. For example, a seven-story municipal building, built in 1992, had substantial wind damage to its roof, as well as water intrusion damage. The site investigation revealed hurricane shutters were placed only on one side of the building, and impact-resistant glass was not used on the windows.

One of the most powerful sets of tools for smart and effective recovery comes from one of our founding and Legacy Partners, the engineers of FEMA Building Science Branch. After major disasters, they lead forensic engineering missions and produce assessment reports, recovery advisories, and provide technical counsel on the ground through temporary deployment to the affected communities.

Reports can include detailed findings regarding building performance, as well as failures, along with recommendations for improvements in minimum standards, materials, and other resilience considerations. FEMA’s insights and professional counsel are invaluable and essential to aid hurricane-impacted communities, as well as inform to future models of building codes and standards.

How We Are Moving Forward

We are encouraged by innovation and ideas under consideration to make Puerto Rico’s electric grid more resilient.[v]

As Puerto Rico rebuilds, the effort to do so resiliently can be institutionalized by exploring every option to hire additional staff and garner resources to support the inspection and permitting process.

While Puerto Rico received much of the media attention post-Maria, it is critical to remember that the Virgin Islands endured devastating impacts as well. The Virgin Islands suffered what the New York Times aptly described as an Irma/Maria “one-two punch”.[vi] The negative affect on tourism was immediate, however, the islands are recovering as swiftly as possible. Tourism is both the livelihood for many Virgin Islanders, as well as a third of the local gross domestic product.[vii]

At the time of this writing, USVI leaders had demonstrated widespread acceptance of the opportunity to modernize during recovery and rebuilding. The FEMA-led mission is on the ground there now, and we are optimistic that they will not only rebuild, but they will set a new standard for safe and resilient construction in the Caribbean.

We are encouraged to see the focus in both these communities on building back better and the growing awareness of the essential linkage between codes and disaster survival.

[i] Danica Coto. Sept. 21, 2017. “A stunned Puerto Rico seeks to rebuild after Hurricane Maria.” Sun Sentinel.

[ii]Emily Nonko. Dec. 5, 2017. “Weak Building Code Enforcement Exacerbates Destruction in Puerto Rico.” The Wall Street Journal.

[iii]Emily Nonko. Dec. 5, 2017. “Weak Building Code Enforcement Exacerbates Destruction in Puerto Rico.” The Wall Street Journal.

[iv] Jeffrey Acevedo, Nelson Quinones, and Josuea Berlinger. Sept. 22, 2016. “Nearly 1.5 million without power in Puerto Rico.” CNN.

[v] Jonathan Levin. Oct. 22, 2017. “Puerto Rico Lays Out Energy Future With Tesla, Privatization.” Bloomberg.; Steve Cimino. Oct. 24, 2017. “Architect leads team to power Puerto Rico, post-Maria.” AIA.

[vi] Jeremy W. Peters. Sept. 27, 2017. “In the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria Drowned What Irma Didn’t Destroy.” The New York Times.

[vii] Jeremy W. Peters. Sept. 27, 2017. “In the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria Drowned What Irma Didn’t Destroy.” The New York Times.

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