How a Hurricane Forged New Hope for Resilience
February 5, 2018
It’s 10 o’clock at night on September 20, 2017. Rain is seeping through the windows of architect Adriana Bultrón-Rodríguez’s third-floor apartment in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The building has just gotten its power back after Hurricane Irma.
But now, Hurricane Maria has come calling.
Bultrón-Rodríguez and her husband try to stay ahead of the leaks using a mop, bucket, and towels. But after six hours, water starts dripping from the apartment above. The two looked at each other and realized it couldn’t be stopped. “We had water coming from everywhere!” Bultrón-Rodríguez recalled.
The couple and their lap-sized mutt, named Por fin (At last), retreated to the bedroom. The dog shivered as the storm became more vocal, banging against the windows. “We heard the glass cracking, and at that point we decided it was no longer safe to be in the apartment.”
They clambered downstairs to the basement, where many residents from the 13-tower complex were gathering. “Everyone was doing the same thing at the same moment,” recalled Bultrón-Rodríguez. Also, at about the same time, 45 miles south near Yabucoa Harbor, the eye of the hurricane made landfall. It clobbered the island with winds blowing more than 155 miles per hour.
In the days and weeks after the catastrophe, Bultrón-Rodríguez’s firm, Recurso Ciudad (Renewable City), put its design projects on hold. Instead, like many other architects on the island, she inspected and documented damage for clients who planned to file claims with insurance companies or the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
What Bultrón-Rodríguez found, though, was that people needed another kind of attention.
“You have your checklist, your camera, your measuring devices, but what people really want to do is to talk to you about how they managed to survive,” she said.
First, a head count
At Marvel & Marchand Architects in San Juan, the first task after the hurricane was to do a head count. Everyone in the 22-person firm was okay. Then, they checked on their clients.
José Marchand-Sifre, AIA, the partner in the San Juan office, was particularly concerned about elderly residents living in a project in hard-hit Utuado, a mountainous region of the island. He also checked on residents in a housing project for families in San Germán that had a creek running through it.
Marchand-Sifre points out that siting was critical when it came to surviving the disaster. “You have to understand that there are a lot of communities in flood zones, or they are very close to a mountain, and there could be mudslides and things like that,” he explained. During Maria, “there were a lot of those conditions that were very bad, very catastrophic. But following good engineering and good design practice, the [firm’s] projects did well.”
Marchand-Sifre’s firm did well in another way. Unlike many offices, it had power and water from a diesel-powered generator and a water cistern with filters. Many employees collected water at the office to bring home.
Some employees started work early to avoid traveling home at night because there were no traffic lights. Others started later to take care of family. “We were very aware to provide a schedule where people would feel safe,” said Marchand-Sifre.
For more than two months, his firm also harbored a second firm whose offices were flooded.
About four miles away in San Juan’s old city, the offices of Fernando Abruña, FAIA, and Margaret Musgrave, architectural partners and husband and wife, had no water or electricity. And the landline, which the business relied on, was kaput.
Within days, the couple left the city, driving west on roads littered with tree trunks, light posts, and dead animals. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the hurricane left more than six million cubic yards of vegetative and construction debris across the island.
Abruña has lived through other hurricanes, including Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998. None were as bad as this. “Like Maria—never!” he said.
The couple had the perfect refuge: “Casa Ausente” (Absent House), a weekend get-away that Abruña had designed and built in 1999. He calls it “absent” because it emits no greenhouse gases, so as far as climate change goes, “it’s as if the house does not exist,” explained Abruña.
When he built the highly efficient house, he did not think of it as ‘resilient,’ but during Maria, it proved to be.
It had 25 solar panels, three composting toilets, and four rainwater harvesting systems. The hurricane destroyed four panels that had powered one of the water pumps. But redundant design kept the water flowing. “We still had three additional rainwater harvesting systems that worked with gravity,” said Abruña.
But they didn’t have an Internet signal. So, he hunted for one so he could email plans.
Accessing the Internet required fossil fuels
“It was really mind blowing,” he laughed. “Suddenly you see like 50 cars parked on the side because there is a good Internet signal. And people would park there, and so would I.”
But these quests required a precious commodity: gasoline.
Abruña and Musgrave would line up at a gas station at 4 o’clock in the morning, but it wasn’t always fruitful. After they waited for five hours one day, “a guy came out and said, ‘We are out of gasoline. Sorry.’”
The father of green building designs a ‘rescue’ house.
Abruña studied as a young man with Buckminster Fuller. He went on to teach architecture for 31 years at the University of Puerto Rico and earned the nickname ‘the father of green building’ in Puerto Rico.
After the hurricane, his solar-powered house had electricity, which kept the air conditioning humming. But Abruña felt what he describes as “survivor’s guilt” while so many others were suffering.
He traveled with a television crew to Humacao, close to Yabucoa, where the eye of the hurricane first hit, to advise those who were rebuilding on their own. “When I got there, believe me, it was like a nuclear device was detonated right in the center of that place,” he said. “Most of the wooden houses were gone. All the roofs were gone.”
Abruña remembers a woman “in her early 80s, living in the porch of her house because the rest of the house was blown away,” he said. “She had a sofa there and a refrigerator (with no power) which was used to store her food and her belongings, her clothes.”
He pointed out that the slope of the tin roofs in the area was too low––similar to the slope of an airplane wing, which is designed for lift. That made it easy for the strong winds to snag the roofs. His advice: increase the slope of your roofs, reduce the distance between rafters, and use screws instead of nails.
The decimated communities inspired Abruña to design a very small, zero-energy home for “those people who were really far away from the grid because those people, in my opinion, will never get their electrical service again,” said Abruña. He made the architectural plans free to the public.
His Casa Rescate (Rescue House) can be sited in remote areas, generate its own electricity from a 2 KW photovoltaic system, and collect, store, and heat water. If the government were to forgive taxes and permitting fees, Abruña says the 650 ft2 house could be built for $75,000.
Building the correct way from scratch
Since the hurricane, many Puerto Rican architects say they want to rebuild with resilient design that more people can afford.
But Bultrón-Rodríguez says she is “touchy” about the word ‘rebuilding.’ “Rebuilding entails we are going to put back together what was there before,” said Bultrón-Rodríguez. “There has to be a completely different mentality. It’s about building the correct way from scratch.”
She says designers have to find ways to help clients build “in the right way, with the right materials, adapted to climate change, without having to spend half a million dollars to do so.”
Bultrón-Rodríguez said selecting the right site is key even if it means letting a property with water views remain undeveloped.
Marchand-Sifre told BuildingGreen there is at least one silver lining from Maria. “It gives us good leverage when we sit down with the client and we make recommendations that are going to cost some money,” he predicts, such as hurricane-resistant windows, emergency generators, water cisterns, solar panels on a battery system, or building higher in elevation than FEMA recommends.
Marchand-Sifre’s colleague, landscape architect José Juan Terrasa-Soler, says redundant building systems are essential. “You cannot rely on a single system for anything,” Terrasa-Soler explains, “You have to have backup.”
“Our dependence on cellular communication and on a single electrical system, managed by one company––a government, public company––with no other way of powering is––crazy!” Terrasa-Soler said.
The firm helped arrange for the installation and design of solar microgrids on the island since Maria. Terrasa-Soler said these are essential for community centers and clinics so they are “not dependent on the commercial power from one facility.”
Abruña advocates for “passive survivability:” design that works even if power is lost for an extended period of time. This could include a battery system for solar PV, a highly efficient envelope, and natural ventilation “by strategically placing doors and windows that would allow cross-ventilation and daylighting.”
Year 0 right now
The Army Corps of Engineers predicts most of the island will have power by March, but for the most remote areas, including the mountains above Yabucoa, it could take until the end of May. That’s more than eight months after the hurricane.
Bultrón-Rodríguez believes the hurricane will change Puerto Ricans’ concept of time. “Instead of before Christ and after Christ, in the calendar it’s going to be before Maria and after Maria. We are on year 0 right now,” meaning nothing has happened to help people feel they are “on the other side of that mess.”
“It’s hard to put your hopes in FEMA or the federal government,” Bultrón-Rodríguez said. She has more faith in grassroots, community-based groups. “People who have experienced the trauma from within––they have the will to transform their communities,” she said.
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