From 2017 to 2022: The Increasing Case for Building a Resilient Puerto Rico

Tiempo de Construir | Emilio Colón-Zavala, PE
October 8, 2022

Puerto Rico has been experiencing natural disasters throughout its history.  Nevertheless, they have increased in diversity and frequency in the last 30 years. Coupled with the Government’s bankruptcy in 2016, the last five years have proved the need to finally implement lessons learned and build back better our islands in the face of a changing environment.  

The strict definition of the term resiliency is “the ability to recover readily from illness, adversity, or the like”.  In 2022 the question is, have we moved towards preparing to recover from the next hurricane, earthquake, pandemic, flood, etc.?  What have we accomplished so far, if anything?

Before answering any questions on our recovery, we need to understand the background of natural disasters since 1989.  We experienced the impact of the first major hurricanes of our generation in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo visited our region.  Literature in the aftermath of it stated the following:

“Single-family homes suffered the most severe damage from Hugo in the Caribbean. Many homes were built without regard to existing code requirements, and “do-it-yourself” types of wood construction suffered very extensive damage. A concerted technology-transfer effort is needed among federal, Puerto Rican, and U.S. Virgin Islands governments to provide state-of-the-art, economical design criteria for low-income housing in areas affected by Hurricane Hugo.”

Damages were estimated in $1bn with over 30,000 people left homeless.  Also, over 80% of wooden structures in the islands of Vieques and Culebra were destroyed.  These were mainly due to buildings built without compliance with building codes or existing regulation.

The 1990’s started with the flood event of January 6 of 1992, estimated at 20inches of rain in a 24-hour period, which caused over $150MM of damage, caused the destruction of 78 homes and approximately 4,200 damaged.  Then came Hurricane Hortense in 1996 and severely damaged over 11,000 homes.

Hurricane Georges, in 1998, destroyed over 28,000 houses and damaged over 72,000 with damages estimated in over $5bn.  Of importance is that about 84% of damages were to housing and other structures.  The entirety of the electrical power grid went offline, 75% of clients lost potable service, 8.4% of clients lost telephone service.

Off course September of 2017 saw the impact of two hurricanes.  First, early in the month Hurricane Irma caused over $700MM in damages.  Then came Hurricane María in September 20, which has been estimated to have destroyed over 35,000 houses, 180,000 damaged with over $71bn in damages of which 87.5% were to housing and other structures.  Also, 80% of the electrical grid was destroyed and caused the world’s second longest blackout, 95% of clients lost potable water service and over 90% of clients lost telecommunications service.  It is still the biggest

The start of the new decade, saw two disasters, an ongoing seismic event with a peak 6.4 magnitude earthquake on January 7, 2020, causing damage to over 600 buildings in the South to Southwest region of Puerto Rico.  Of these, 3,261 houses were damaged with over 300 collapsing.  Damages were estimated in $3.1bn.  Finally in March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Puerto Rico causing over $10bn in economic damages.

These recap of over thirty years of disasters is to show the increase in frequency and cost of natural disasters.  This trend is also true for disasters in the rest of US.  Of importance is that the Federal Government spent in fiscal years 2011 to 2013 $138bn in responding to natural disasters.  This is a five time increase from the federal dollars spent in disaster recoveries from 1980 until 2012.  For Puerto Rico alone, federal allocated funds for disasters in the last five years is $79.7bn.

On the other hand, we have an aging infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded our infrastructure with a D- in 2021 and recommended the expenditure between $13 and $23bn over 10 years to update it.  In terms of housing, 67% of existing structures today were built before 1980, 80% before 1999, and 99% before 2012. Recommendations for rebuilding Puerto Rico after major hurricanes have been very similar in the last decades.  These include the following:

  • Adopt a new building code: proper Training to Professionals; Code Compliance Program, and Adopt a Recurring Code Update Cycle
  • Proper new construction, retrofitting of existing structures, and rebuilding of damaged buildings
  • An upgraded electric power system that can be quickly restored after a natural disaster
  • Building precautions in areas with known hazards
  • Enforcement of Planning Regulation 13: 434,000 people used to live in identified floodplains, and Siting of residential buildings out of flood prone areas

There has been little will to implement necessary changes to prepare Puerto Rico for the next natural disaster and mitigate risk.  The difference this time around is the quantity of resources allocated by the federal government for Puerto Rico’s recovery.  There are programs to even spur economic development as part of our recovery.  But we cannot make the mistake of thinking that federal funds will be our economic development.  We need to implement much needed structural reforms.  These include a true permit overhaul that will expedite the process and focus efforts in activities that truly need it.  

Also, a tax structure that makes sense in our society and incentivize economic activity, innovation, and assure we have enough inventory should an occurrence disrupt our supply chains.  These among others are needed in order for, in combination with those federal resources, spur a sustainable growth.

The increase in frequency and magnitude of disasters underscore the need for these recommendations to be implemented.  Also, we need to make sure that access to safe, affordable housing is achieved for every resident in Puerto Rico.  For some, it could be in the form of access to subsidized professional services for them to build a safe home.  For others, a program that will help working families access a home (to buy or to rent).  For all, a truly educational program for people to understand the benefits of building code and regulation compliance.  Only like this, informal housing will recede.

It cannot be understated the need to implement measures that will prepare Puerto Rico for the next disaster.  As we’ve seen in the past five years, disasters can come anytime and in different shapes (hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, fire, war, among others).

Due to climate change, it can be expected that occurrences will be more often and costlier.  We need to rethink our preparedness, implement solutions that will position us better for the next one.

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