Earthquake-Stricken Puerto Ricans Seek Engineers To Inspect The Safety Of Their Homes

Jan 17, 2020
Originally published on January 17, 2020 8:08 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been 10 days since a major earthquake struck Puerto Rico's southern coast, 10 days in which many people have been sleeping outside. They're waiting for engineers to inspect their homes and tell them if it's safe to return. NPR's Adrian Florido looks at these challenges.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Ambar Robles lives in the town of Yauco on a street lined with two-story houses, all still standing but with visible earthquake damage. She and her neighbors have been sleeping in a little encampment on the street. Robles invited me inside her house to see why.

AMBAR ROBLES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: In the living room on the first floor, she pointed to big cracks where the walls meet the ceiling and small cracks running down the sides.

ROBLES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And new cracks appear every day, she said. Robles said what she needs is for an engineer to come inspect her house, tell her whether it's safe, salvageable, or whether it's a total loss.

ROBLES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Until that happens, Robles said, we're in this limbo, not knowing if we can stay or if we'll have to move. Aside from the aftershocks that are ongoing, this is the main reason thousands of Puerto Ricans are still in the streets. Even if their homes don't show visible damage, they don't know if they're safe. They want engineers to tell them. But there aren't yet many engineers out there doing those inspections.

Around the corner from Robles's house, the pillars that keep Angel Flores's house aloft over a garage on the first floor buckled but did not collapse. He was shoring the second story up with metal rods.

ANGEL FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: When we built the house, he said, we built it to withstand earthquakes - at least we thought we did. Now he was trying to save it, the worry visible on his face.

FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said he had faith in God that he could save it - with the help of an engineer, of course. In recent days, Puerto Rico's government has asked engineers from the U.S. to come to Puerto Rico to help assess the damage. One of them is Kit Miyamoto, a seismic safety expert from California. I met him in a neighborhood in Yauco.

KIT MIYAMOTO: As you can see, most of the houses are actually OK. You don't see even single damage at all, right? But if you see that the two-story buildings there, there's a huge damage in downstairs. And most of the house collapsed at the ground floor.

FLORIDO: He said that's in part because of a design that's popular in Puerto Rico - houses like Angel Flores's that are elevated on columns over open patios or garages on the first floor. The columns are often not built strong enough.

MIYAMOTO: I think blessing disguise is that the people were not sleeping downstairs. People sleeping upstairs.

FLORIDO: He said that saved many lives. Accompanying Miyamoto as he walked through the neighborhood was Luis Martinez, an engineer for the town of Yauco.

LUIS MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: What we're seeing, Martinez said, is that most of the damaged houses were built informally, without certification from engineers or architects. Felix Rivera is president of the earthquake commission at Puerto Rico's college of engineers and land surveyors. It's working with the government to coordinate the huge task of inspecting thousands of buildings in the affected area.

Do you have a sense of what percentage of structures in Puerto Rico are built without formal engineering plans?

FELIX RIVERA: So we have over 50% of structures built without any type of design or engineering.

FLORIDO: Why is that happening at such a large scale here?

RIVERA: I believe it's poor enforcement.

FLORIDO: He said this is something Puerto Rico's government will have to address. In the meantime, Rivera is working with the government to send hundreds of engineers out to inspect for damage. But California's Kit Miyamoto said that knowing exactly when to start this massive effort is tricky.

MIYAMOTO: Right now, it's - damage assessments probably should wait a little bit because there's quite bit of aftershocks going on right now, you know? And so you do want to keep repeating the damage assessment, so you want to kind of wait for a little bit to start off this massive-scale assessment like that.

FLORIDO: So, he said, when they do begin, those inspections will go a long way toward giving people the peace of mind they need to return home.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Yauco, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.