"If we were already vulnerable before Hurricane María, we are now even more vulnerable... Action needs to be taken."
That's how architect Astrid Díaz reacted to the findings and recommendations in FEMA Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) report.
Among the findings, the report states that following the consolidation process announced by the government, the remaining schools are in flood-prone areas. The document also recommends measures to ensure life-safety protection in facilities identified as shelters and highlights vulnerabilities in critical facilities, such as hospitals.
"All the buildings suffered damage... It's as if we were in a boxing ring and they hit us hard," Díaz said.
She pointed out that "even though they were concrete structures," they all "had some impact," from "simplest aspects, such as windows, to the most complex ones, such as mechanical and structural aspects.
"Most structures in Puerto Rico were built before the previous building code. Only 1 percent was built after 2010, they are very few in line with the 2011 code and almost none in line with the new one that has just been approved," Díaz said.
She added that buildings are old and “materials are not eternal. This is aggravated by a natural disaster. After the impact they suffered, we must review their vulnerability. This report also describes other vulnerabilities, such as those related to access to houses and communities, and unexpected floods.”
"It is necessary to consider these recommendations and take action before another natural disaster so that we can rebuild in a resilient fashion," she warned. "It is unfortunate that we already see repairs done informally,” Díaz noted.
For the past 30 years, after every natural disaster in the United States, FEMA brings together experts to join MAT. After Hurricanes Irma and María, FEMA Building Sciences Branch commissioned a group of 30 construction industry experts to prepare a study on the island.
Puerto Ricans Luis Aponte Bermúdez and Roberto Alsina also participated in the 291-page MAT report.
According to the document, “damage to public schools was reported to be as high as $8.4 billion across Puerto Rico.”
The report describes that the most commonly observed impacts to schools, including those used as shelters, were flood and wind impacts, water intrusion through roofs and windows and loss of power and communications.
And it also notes that after the school consolidation plan some schools are still located in Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA).
In that scenario, experts recommend that the Department of Education reassess the consolidation plan to consider the vulnerability of the available facilities and then identify federal funds specifically targeted to strengthen them.
The report highlights that none of the 383 schools identified for use as event-specific shelters “were purpose-built safe rooms or storm shelters defined by FEMA”
They recommend the government to update the Department of Housing's shelter program.
The report concludes that “buildings used as “shelters” before, during, and after the hurricanes were not evaluated by design professionals using a consistent methodology
or program to identify vulnerabilities from damage or failure from flood, wind or seismic forces.”
MAT experts pointed out that “several schools, fire stations and other critical facilities were damaged as localized flooding occurred at the building site,” even though they were not in flood-prone areas because their floor was constructed lower than the adjacent grade.
Díaz said that localized flooding damaged fans, air conditioners, generators, and elevators equipment.
"This affected the elevators and caused that, for a long time, there were hospitals that had to make a human chain to move medicines, clothes, and food between the floors," Díaz explained.
Damage to Homes
According to the report, most of the structures affected were low-rise housing units.
To understand the magnitude of the impact of Hurricane María, Díaz said it is necessary to compare the number of reconstruction works after that event with those carried out after Hurricane Georges in 1998.
"After Georges, there were 1,647 houses rebuilt between 2003 and 2011. Now, after María, there are more than 600,000 damaged homes. That gives us the idea of what we are facing,” she said.
"It is important to note that houses built after Georges did not have problems with María. We have to consider this when repairing or building now,” Díaz added.
The report highlights the lack of proper anchoring systems for metal panels on the roofs.
Even when structures have not been damaged, MAT recommends that “homeowners should consider
hiring design professionals to evaluate the existing roof structure to determine if it can carry at least 75 percent of the design load.”
Díaz also stressed that structure designs must consider "microzone wind maps.”
"For example, the map will tell you that in Cayey, where the Doppler radar is located, there can be winds up to 234 miles per hour, while in areas in Toa Baja you have to consider winds up to 160 miles per hour," she explained.
She said most flood insurance in Puerto Rico is private, and that less than 5 percent of homeowners have the policy offered by FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
This trend is contrary to that in the United States, where homeowners chose NFIP and that raised concern among MAT experts.
“Private flood insurance can offer different protections than NFIP policies. Because Puerto Rico’s reliance on private insurance is unique in the U.S., a study is warranted after this event to assess the efficacy of private insurance on homeowners’ ability to rebuild more quickly while reducing the burden on U.S. taxpayers,” recommends the report.
Díaz also urged the door and window industry to consider the report, since recommendations stress that they can be sealed during a hurricane to prevent wind and water pressure.
The government welcomed the recommendation on the adoption of the new 2018 Building Code, which was funded by FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP)
"It is good to know that a new building code has already been adopted, but it is advisable that everyone who works in this industry has the certifications, that designs include the wind load path, a wider inspection of informal buildings and that there is a process to encourage people to build under the code so their homes will be safer," Díaz said.