Civil engineers conference highlights Puerto Rico's needs, resilience

Hurricane Maria satellite image

A satellite image of Hurricane Maria from Sept. 20, 2017. (Processed by Antti Lipponen/Creative Commons)

It has been more than two years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Ever since that fateful storm hit the five islands, it has been a long journey for both the federal government and Puerto Rican residents to deal with the harsh storms that are becoming a more and more regular occurrence.

From President Donald Trump controversially tossing some paper towels into a crowd to organizations offering relief, there has been a large effort to give aid to Puerto Rico. One of the organizations that has helped rebuild Puerto Rico is the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE. Not only is the ASCE helping to rebuild Puerto Rico but they also are updating their infrastructure to last around 50 to 100 years and be able to handle hurricanes with the same wrath as Maria according to their standards. 

During the ASCE-led briefing, the main topic was updating Puerto Rico’s infrastructure to last and withstand deadly tropical storms in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Sept. 24. The moderators of the briefing called on a joining of forces between the federal government and the ASCE.

Going into the briefing informing people of the ASCE 7 Hazard Tool which informs people on how to deal and be prepared for harsh conditions like hurricanes, ice storms, blizzards, and other types of inclement weather was a big point to get across. Since the document’s last update in 2017, it now has information on hurricane-prone areas, as well as wind debris.

Leading the briefing were multiple high ranking members of the ASCE: Executive director Tom Smith; Héctor Colón De La Cruz, who is the head of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure report card; Otto Lynch, who is the president and CEO of Power Line Systems; and Josefa Torres-Olivo, who is the District III director of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership.

Later in the discussion the Republican Congresswoman of Puerto Rico Jenniffer González-Colón to reinforce what was being presented by the ASCE.

Smith described some financial benefits that can be seen when it comes to reinforcing and strengthening communities to be better prepared for disasters.

“According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation and preparedness saves 6 dollars in rebuilding costs after a storm,” Smith said.

Smith also describes what the ASCE-7 was and just how in depth the document that the ASCE has presented with their standards is, and just how many people have put the time and dedication necessary to put something like this together.

“ASCE-7 is an 800-page document,” Smith said. “We have hundreds of engineers who work on this document analyzing infrastructure and how it has performed across the world and testing it in labs.”

Throughout the briefing, ASCE pushed their standards and explained how that can benefit areas that deal with numerous types of harsh storms.

Lynch discussed how the Bahamas updated their infrastructure according to the ASCE guidelines.

“I’ve been told by more than one source that every pole on that line survived Hurricane Dorian. That’s a Category 5 storm that stayed over the island for 36 hours. Follow these!” Lynch said, as he shook a copy of the guidelines in his hand.

Colón De La Cruz would go on to explain Puerto Rico’s infrastructure strain, the aid it is receiving from Congress and a new problem facing Puerto Rico’s reconstruction.

“Congress allocated $42.5 billion for reconstruction purposes,” Colón De La Cruz said. “As of May 2019, only $15 billion has been delivered to Puerto Rico. It is important that the American government and Puerto Rico work together to deliver a more resilient infrastructure.” 

“Looking forward in specific infrastructure energy was a headline, the energy blackout but we are also facing a new emergency,” Colón De La Cruz said. “Last year the EPA estimated that we only have 5 years left of capacity remaining in our landfills excluding the amount of debris that is going to be a part of the reconstruction efforts. It is also important to mention that only half of the landfills are compliant to EPA standards.”

Torres-Olivo would go on to stress how resources like clean drinking water have been affected by Hurricane Maria for an area that already struggles to distribute clean water to people living there.

“The reality is that in an island topography and an infrastructure cost investment it is not feasible to perform in for the entire island,” Torres-Olivo said while describing how difficult it is to distribute water. 

Rep. González-Colón would not speak until later in the briefing, however she still took advantage of her time. Calling on both the federal government and the private sector to work together to help areas like Puerto Rico.

“One of the biggest challenges I have as a member of Congress is that I don’t even have the correct data,” González-Colón said. “I rely on the private sector and I rely on NGO's to gather that information.” 

González-Colón also went on to state how important improving Puerto Rico’s infrastructure will be and she expressed her confidence in the ASCE guidelines to accomplish that.

“We need to use the American Society of Civil Engineer’s standards,” she said.

ASCE has the means of doing that.

"This is the only way for people to know what is going on back home," González-Colón said.

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