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The report is developed by the FEMA Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT), which carries out this work after each catastrophic event. (GFR Media)
The report is developed by the FEMA Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT), which carries out this work after each catastrophic event. (GFR Media)

After studying for months the impact of Hurricane Maria on buildings in Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will recommend that the Island adopt the 2018 International Building Codes (IBC).

Although the expectation is for the report to be published before June 1 - when the hurricane season 2018 begins - a FEMA official advanced to El Nuevo Día general findings and recommendations to be made to the state authorities.

"Our recommendation is to adopt the new (building) codes", said Andrew Martin, FEMA mitigation consultant for the recovery following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, in referring to the International Building Code (IBC) of 2018.

"In general terms, we are going to see some changes, such as in the recommendations of chemicals and types of materials for the concrete that is used, and recommendations for protection against the speed of winds in particular locations", he added.

The report is developed by the FEMA Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT), which carries out this work after each catastrophic event.

"(The report) highlights all the things we saw across the island, good and bad, and makes recommendations on how to improve in the future, and ensure a better preparation for a next major event", Martin explained.

"After the storm, we visited many parts of the island. We looked at different types of buildings to see how they reacted to risks, be it flood or wind. We observed many different things", Martin said.

The team performs the engineering analysis to see the damage to government facilities, homes, businesses and other structures, and determine the causes for the structures to fail or resist.

After Maria, they also evaluated hospitals, schools, shelters, power generation plants, water treatment plants and municipal buildings.

The main problems

Among the most frequent damages found in affected structures, Martin highlighted corrosion problems in "connectors and parts of structures".

"There are two causes for that. One is the passing of time. The other is that when it was built, things that could have been used to prevent corrosion were not included", explained the advisor.

They also observed that most of the damage responded to the fact that the security and protection systems of windows and doors "were not applied uniformly in residential, commercial and industrial structures". They also found mixed results in "rooftop systems".

On these two aspects, architect Astrid Diaz, who collaborates with the MAT, indicated that "most of the damage was caused by the water that went into the structures, through doors or windows, and by existing problems with the waterproofing of roofs "in many buildings".

In addition, Diaz said that "a lot of mechanical equipment", located on the roofs of buildings, was "seriously affected by the winds," which interrupted their operations within those structures.

This situation affected communications, for example. After the hurricane, there was communication only with 11 of the 300 police stations and with four hospitals, explained Díaz.

"The critical infrastructure of the Island is not just the posts ... it includes the buildings that offer basic services, such as hospitals, police, firefighters and schools ... Many are located in places that are not adequate. They are in flood-prone areas, in areas that are going to be isolated if another hurricane strikes ", said the architect.

On the other hand, Martin emphasized the need to "improve" the maps of risk areas.

"That includes floods, where the worst winds are going to be and which areas are more susceptible to landslides, so we avoid building in vulnerable areas in the future",  Martin said.

FEMA official said that his work team collaborated with the Planning Board in updating the maps of flood-prone areas.

Positive findings

Among the positive findings, the MAT found that the homes built in response to Hurricane Georges in 1988 "did well" and that the cyclone winds were resisted by most of the houses built under the current building code, known as the Puerto Rico Building Code-2011, which responds to the International Building Code -2009.

However, Martin said that the MAT study concluded that it is necessary to make changes to the current code. The Office of Permit Management (OGPe, Spanish acronym) has already recruited several professional organizations to evaluate amendments to the building code, a process that was already being considered before the cyclone.

He commented that he will make recommendations about "the materials, the level of protection in construction and how to build certain items so that the roofing systems are properly integrated into the rest of the structure".

But what draws the most attention is the issue of protection against the winds. Martin said that the MAT will recommend increasing the resistance against winds of greater intensity than the current code, which has a minimum speed of 145 miles per hour.

"The IBC-2108 makes recommendations for wind speeds for different types of structures, such as office buildings, commercial, residential, utility posts and schools. For some types of infrastructure, the wind resistance recommendation will increase and in others it will stay the same", Martin said.

Hurricane Maria entered through Yabucoa as category 4, with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour.

However, Martin said that some readings in the mountainous area, such as in Lares, recorded gusts between 200 and 215 miles. "So when mountains are close, winds get tighter and go faster. That leads us to understand what those areas are and see if they are being built properly", he said.

Martin said the recommendations for wind resistance in the new code "is between 150 and 200 miles per hour for Puerto Rico."

Meanwhile, engineer Luis Aponte, professor at the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), and who is also part of the MAT, said that the minimum resistance to winds will increase for some areas, according to the new IBC code, which is based on the most recent code of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"It will be 170 miles per hour for the most critical areas", said Aponte. "We will increase the loads and it will result in the elements being more resistant".

Caution with amendments

According to the president of the College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico (CIAPR, Spanish acronym), Pablo Vazquez Ruiz, it is necessary to be cautious about the increase in the resistance of the winds. He considers that the current code has been effective, so he believes that raising the requirements could have consequences contrary to the desired.

"Structural technicians have to learn from the experience of these hurricanes, but it is not just adopting everything that the new code provides", he said. "We all agree with the revision, because the current one is nine years old (dating from the IBC-2009), but we have to see which part to adopt and with what amendments".

"The experience we have is that the greatest destruction was in informal construction. The structure of the houses that were in accordance with the current code did not suffer major damages", he added.

Vazquez Ruiz warned that increasing the resilience of new structures will mean "higher costs in construction, at a time of economic difficulty and will be more expensive for the people who are trying to recover".

"The delay (in the release) of funds is leading people to rebuild informally, with what they have, and if more costs are added, it will be difficult to have a better structure", he said.

In that sense, he was hopeful about a bill that he is working on with a legislator –whose name he did not mention- to provide engineers and architects assistance to people who cannot pay for these services.

"Soon it will be announced, but it is the kind of aid that citizens need to avoid informal construction and so that we have less damage when another hurricane strikes. That is going to be very important", he said.