Feature Short

Instructions on Rebuilding a Resilient Puerto Rico

A manual on building disaster-resistant homes will be published in 2019.

June 5, 2018

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A damaged home in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, three weeks after Hurricane Maria.

Aerial view of a damaged home in the mountainous area of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, three weeks after Hurricane Maria.

Photo: FEMA / Andrea Booher
As the 2018 hurricane season begins, Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. and the Asociación de Constructores de Puerto Rico are spearheading a collaborative effort to write Keep Safe: Strategies for Puerto Rico Housing Resilience, a manual for building to withstand future natural disasters. Other key partners include the University of Puerto Rico, Perkins+Will, and the MIT Urban Risk Lab.

“The goal of the manual is to centralize best practices, techniques, strategies, and interventions to make houses more safe and resilient from climate impacts,” said Laurie Schoeman, the director of resilience and disaster recovery with Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.

The target audience includes architects, engineers, professional builders, and residents who want to rebuild stronger.

Hurricane Maria destroyed tens of thousands of homes and severely damaged hundreds of thousands. According to a report from the National Hurricane Center, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands suffered an estimated $90 billion in damages.

Resilience and self-sufficiency

Repairs have not happened quickly, in part because it takes longer to get supplies to Puerto Rico and the electrical grid has not been reliable. “We are trying to address the fact that the communities that we are supporting are communities with less access to resources,” said Schoeman. “That means the communities need to be more self-sufficient.”

A FEMA worker checks on a survivor of Hurricane Maria, whose home was damaged in Utuado, Puerto Rico.

FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) team member Luis Delgado checks on the well-being of a survivor of Hurricane Maria in Utuado, Puerto Rico, about five weeks after the hurricane hit.

Photo: FEMA / Andrea Booher
To that end, the manual will describe how to build a rainwater collection system and some of the basics of installing solar panels. It will also include strategies to design for redundancy, along with ideas for strengthening the relationship of individual homes to the greater community.

The challenge of ‘informal’ housing

The rebuilding effort on the island faces another hurdle: an estimated half of the housing is considered ‘informal,’ meaning legal ownership isn’t clear. These houses were constructed by residents on land they didn’t own, without construction permits or titles to the properties. Sometimes the informal housing was built on the sides of mountains or in wetlands, making it more vulnerable during extreme weather.

Anna Georas, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture, describes these settlements as “forgotten, marginalized communities” without a “masterplan that [shows] this is the street and these are the plots.”

Without a legal deed, it makes it difficult for residents to prove that they qualify for federal disaster funding for homeowners. Many may rebuild on their own, without professional help.

Addressing a range of natural disasters

On top of this, Puerto Rico is “constantly experiencing hurricanes and floods and wind events,” according to Schoeman. “And it’s getting worse.” 

The manual will cover building methods to withstand landslides, earthquakes, drought, water damage, and wind. For instance, it will explain how to angle a roof to resist the force of wind. It will also emphasize the importance of securing strong connections between building materials, such as anchoring roof beams, attaching wooden walls to concrete foundations, and building trusses with the cross-bracing necessary to make sure they can resist forces from different directions.

Profoundly visual, like Ikea

Georas is overseeing the work of students from the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture, who are making the technical drawings for the manual. A graduate of the School of Architecture is managing the project.

Georas says the diagrams will invoke the kind of simple directions the furniture retailer, Ikea, provides for building a bookcase. “There is a percentage of the population in all of the world … and here in the Caribbean specifically, that don’t read or write. So, to the extent that we can make this profoundly visual, it would be more viable so we can try to safeguard the lives of more people,” said Georas.

Additional groups are collaborating on the manual including the Department of Housing of Puerto Rico and Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon. More than ninety experts on the island are helping to develop the content.

Besides instruction on rebuilding, the manual will also describe how to prepare for emergencies, how to stay safe during a storm, and when it makes sense to evacuate. 

A bilingual manual

Written in Spanish and English, the manual will be available for free online and in print. Housing organizations, municipalities, and architectural and engineering firms will help distribute it in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Florida Keys. It is slated to be published in 2019.

This is the second resilience manual that Enterprise will have published. The first was released in 2015, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. It focused on building and renovating multifamily housing projects for resilience.

More on resilience after Hurricane Maria

‘Build Higher’: HUD’s Rules After Harvey, Irma and Maria

Building Industry Helps Disaster Victims Recover

How A Hurricane Forged New Hope for Resilience

Bouncing Forward from Disasters

For more information:

Enterprise Community Partners

Perkins + Will

Asociacíon de Constructores de Puerto Rico

MIT Urban Risk Lab

Alvarez-Diaz & Villalon

Universidad de Puerto Rico School of Architecture

Ready to Respond: Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience

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