Recommendations by international experts, after assessing the damage caused by the January 7 earthquake and its aftershocks in Puerto Rico, have to be considered as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce the island's vulnerabilities in case of strong earthquakes.
Experts from California, México, and Chile, as well as local scientists with extensive experience, focus the recommendations on making the island's buildings more resistant to seismic activity in the medium and long term. They also suggest developing knowledge on earthquakes and forging a culture of knowledge sharing with citizens.
An important lesson for everyone in Puerto Rico is that it is vital to have proper information from official scientific sources, as highlighted by the head of the Mexican National Seismological Service (SSN), Xyoli Pérez Campos. She noted that speculation, rumors, or other unsubstantiated reports destabilize communities.
In México, hit by an 8.1-magnitude earthquake in 1985, there is a radio network with official information on seismic activity. In that country, educational programs go beyond school curricula; they included workplaces, among others. It is crucial that people have access and understand accurate information about these natural phenomena because the first line of defense against the impact of an earthquake is, precisely, the people.
Recommendations by the experts also include adequate planning. This implies responsible government regulation of land use, according to its characteristics and considering variables such as sea-level rise and other aspects linked to global warming. The director of the National Seismological Center at the University of Chile, Sergio Barrientos, referred to the relevance of improving construction, as they did in his country, after the February 27, 2010, 8.8 magnitude earthquake
It is also important to discuss the possibility of civil and criminal penalties for buildings certified or built without following legal codes. This type of measure was introduced in Chile following devastating earthquakes that hit that country.
Several sectors in Puerto Rico have already expressed concerns about this issue. Kit Miyamoto, California Seismic Safety Commissioner, focused his recommendations on school safety and specified that classes should not resume until every classroom has been fully inspected. This structural engineer recalled that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides priority funding to strengthen school structures.
The experts´ comments point to concerns about informal construction and may imply changes in the Planning Board's approaches.
Building without following state codes has resulted in thousands of people on the island living in houses with deficiencies that could jeopardize the stability of the residence, especially on land prone to landslides or liquefaction. In this sense, geomorphologist José Molinelli made some important observations. He suggested creating public notices with a risk-level code per building, with a scale from 1 to 5 that measures the resistance of a structure to earthquakes. Other experts discussed the importance of using resistant materials and permanent maintenance of the structures. These aspects should be monitored by the government to ensure the stability of public and private infrastructure.
In another key area, a necessary measure, recently launched, is to have more equipment to increase seismic activity monitoring. This effort along with the use of land in harmony with nature and public safety could reduce our vulnerabilities.
Lessons learned from the earthquake should lead us to act so that no extreme natural phenomenon results in another catastrophe in Puerto Rico.