Puerto Rico´s recovery plans must include measures to address the impact of recent natural phenomena, such as the January 7 earthquake, on our precious ecological resources and our historical and artistic heritage.
Historic buildings and artistic heritage, as well as areas of high ecological value, such as the Bosque Seco (Dry Forest) in Guánica are of important tourist and research interest that permanently attract local and international researchers and students, as well as visitors.
As was the case after Hurricane Maria in 2017, these areas must be inspected as soon as possible to detail the potential damage associated with the earthquake. This will help to direct mitigation and conservation efforts.
The earthquakes caused severe damage to the southwestern area of the island such as the collapse of the Immaculada Concepción Church in Guayanilla, a century-old structure located in the urban center. In Guánica, part of the structure of the colonial lighthouse, built in 1892, collapsed due to the earthquake which has also affected the Bosque Seco, one of the area´s tourist attractions and a valuable scientific research area in the south. The earthquake also impacted the Cueva de Cal causing considerable landslides and cracks and serious damage to the old Cuerpo de Conservación headquarters, a structure erected in 1936.
In September 2017, Hurricane María damaged hundreds of the island's historic structures, as well as vast and valuable natural resources. In terms of green infrastructure, thanks to government and non-profit environmental initiatives, we see a gradual recovery. In historical buildings, however, restoration work does not seem so advanced.
Months after the hurricane struck the island, the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture and the organization Para la Naturaleza inspected 4,755 historic structures. They determined that 361 severely damaged, including 22 that collapsed. Back then, like with recent earthquakes, the greatest impact was documented in the south.
In Old San Juan, the Federal Emergency Management Agency identified $17.5 million in 2019 for the restoration of the Cuartel de Ballajá, built between 1864 and 1954. Hurricane María damaged that structure, which is home to the Museum of the Americas. Other structures of significant cultural value were also affected, but no comprehensive repairs have been undertaken. Due to the earthquake, structures in the historic center of Ponce have also been damaged.
Recent experiences with natural events force the revision of preventive maintenance plans for ecological, historical and artistic resources. It is urgent to start restorations for the benefit of visitors and researchers. Conservation plans must include considerations adjusted to the reality of climate change that has unfortunately led to a potential greater frequency of severe natural phenomena such as hurricanes.
It is important to renew the conservationist spirit in schools, churches and community organizations, especially among children and young people. That´s why it is important to share information about the importance of our unique natural assets and the value of historic structures. Broad knowledge of these resources will renew interest in the protection and preservation of these assets.
Education will lead to initiatives seeking to protect our heritage with determination and pride. At the same time, it will promote community and philanthropic conservation initiatives that will help complement government actions in this vital area for tourism and for the island´s economy. This is an issue of central importance that implies collective responsibility. We must prevent inaction from putting our priceless treasures at risk.