Road of Stones

The heart breaking images of children of all ages, elders and entire families sleeping outdoors after losing their homes, or surrendering to the fear of the continuous seismic activity, should keep us awake at night.  The disturbing notion of a collapsed school makes our heart stop. Most of us are in disbelief of the situation that has shattered, in the most literal way, the beginning of 2020.  With thousands becoming instantly homeless and unemployed, a sudden and overwhelming sadness invades our hearts, and the only way to cope is through acts of kindness and solidarity but we also need action to move forward.

While government struggles with the nightmare, the private sector, and community volunteers have flocked to the south, with supplies, care and even entertainment, to lessen the pain.  Once again, we show the world our resilience and our strength, because helping the less fortunate has become the rule, not the exception.

Nonetheless, amid the continuous seismic activity, we must pause to reflect on how we can minimize tragedies of a natural phenomenon we cannot predict or control. Considering the lives that have been lost, the social impact and  the loss to infrastructure already surpasses the $150 million, Un doubtedly, inspecting infrastructure to determine the outcome as to its stability, and implementing the Puerto Rico construction code is vital at this point.

In 2018, the House of Representatives Economic Development and Planning Commission evaluated the resolution 756 to revise the Puerto Rico Construction Code, after the devastation of hurricane María. With the support of FEMA, the Puerto Rico Office of Permit Management, public agencies and members of the Puerto Rico College of Engineers and Surveyors, the College of Architects and Landscape Architects, the General Association of Contractors and the PR Builders Association, the new code was developed. The Government of Puerto Rico received $110 million from FEMA’s Risk Mitigation Grant Program to improve the implementation of the codes.  This HMGP grant allowed the Puerto Rico Planning Board and the Office of Permit Management to increase its staff from 11 code compliance officers to more than 200.

Among its many proposals the new Code recommended the design of new infrastructure and the mitigation of existing one, to make construction more resistant to hurricanes and earthquakes.

Nonetheless, when approved, no one imagined it would be as relevant as it is today.

The 2018 approved building code represented the first significant revision since 2011, and it included dispositions of more resistance to risks for a safer construction in all 78 municipalities.  Nonetheless, compliance is key, all structures today should have been constructed according to the corresponding approved code.  Were they?

What did the present code establish regarding earthquakes?

During the public hearings that led to the new Construction Code, the Office of Permits Management (OGP, for its acronym in Spanish) said Puerto Rico already had more restrictive design parameters than other jurisdictions, since the 2011 code had incorporated amendments based on a study of Puerto Rico’s seismic history. Risk was assessed per municipality. Yet we must take into consideration that the last great earthquake the Island lived was in 1918, more than a century ago.  This requires a change in the responsibilities of designers, contractors,  government and owners upon our new reality.

Among the recommendations under the Hazard Mitigation Assessment Team Report, made by FEMA, was the creation of maps of micro wind zones (in case of hurricanes) to consider the topography of Puerto Rico, which changes through the Island.  Furthermore, one of the great concerns discussed during those hearings were the conditions of constructions, hence the suggestion of rigorous building maintenance protocol and the regularity of the revision of the construction code.

The seismic activity lived during the past week, brings us to a new cross roads of questioning if we have been rigorous enough in implementing construction codes, if we have provided adequate maintenance to public and private buildings, If compliance with our building codes is accessible to our residents or cumbersome and if we should revise the recent code to this new reality.

Living in an Island of a yearly hectic hurricane season and now, in an area of active seismic activity requires a new mindset.

Its time of solidarity, but also we must roll up our sleeves, get to work, prove our resiliency and our true human nature, literally a road of stones is still ahead.

Author: Waleska Rivera
CEO of Danosa Caribbean Inc. and ACPR's Board Treasurer
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