Saturday, May 27, 2023

Nobody’s Fault But Ours

By on December 11, 2021

Editor’s note: This editorial was first published on Dec. 9, 2021, issue of Caribbean Business. Subscribe here to read about the most important developments of the week.

While most people in Puerto Rico can feel a slight evening chill in the air associated with our never-endingNavidades, most folks confined to the fault lines of southwest Puerto Rico will also feel a subliminal angst associated with seismic activity during the holidays.

Theirs was a truly nerve-racking December 2019 and January 2020, tracing to a swarm of earthquakes that commenced in Guánica with the ground rumbling at 4.7 Richter-scale jolts on Dec. 28, followed by two sizable seismic events of magnitudes5.8 (Jan. 6) and 6.4 (Jan. 7).

Although the grumbling hum of the earth was felt inSan Juan, the emotional shockwaves are nowhere near those felt by the people displaced from their homes in that corner of Puerto Rico. Many schools, churches, and businesses were also leveled. More than exposing the fragile state of the informal buildings in the region, the swarm left emotional scars for those forced to live as nomads in shelters after losing their homes.

It would be months before they would return to their dwellings; some simply moved into safer structures or jetted for sturdier ground in the continental United States. To borrow from parranda lore, the Sabaneer donkey (el burrito sabanero) also left for Bethlehem and will not be returning anytime soon.

The displacement of people forced businesses to close and left broken homes abandoned. A recent study, commissioned by the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company’s (Pridco) PuertoRico Manufacturing Extension (Primex), brings to the fore eyeopening findings.

The report, presented exclusively to CaribbeanBusiness by Team Primex, (See Cover Story, p. 8) revealed the frailty of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Using the Rapid Visual Screening (RVS) technique, which is used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assign scores as a systematic way to evaluate the structural integrity of buildings, the Primex brigades found that 70 percent of the buildings used by small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) required further evaluation given their state.

In fact, more than 70 percent of SMMsin that region reported an economic impact of more than $10,000, along with supply chain interruptions, while more than 50 percent reported closures. The researcher who headed the study, Alizabeth Sánchez-López, told this newspaper that “the human factor” in the equation is significant. She emphasized that 81 percent of respondents reported significant effects related to absenteeism and employee retention in the aftermath of the seismic events.

Despite those findings by Team Primex, action to repair broken columns in the industrial and residential vertebrae seems at a standstill. Prisco’s structural brigades, for one, have been reluctant to address the crying need for seismic hardening.

The engineer José “Pepe” Izquierdo put the inaction of government agencies into context when he explained that the bull reminded him of the passive state response in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. That hurricane, Izquierdo explained, caused devastation across northeastern Puerto Rico, yet spared parts of western and southern Puerto Ricounscathed, leaving the impression in some parts of the island that this was but a glancing blow.

Therefore, resilience to build back better was but an afterthought. It would take Hurricane Maria—the wind beast cut a swath of devastation across the island, plunging us into darkness for months on end—to stress the importance of resilience in the face of disasters. So profound was the scarring of our people that reconstruction plans were set in motion to storm-harden infrastructure to withstand another Category 5 storm.

Izquierdo, who is a former president of the Engineers and LandSurveyors Association and has held several high-level government posts including Secretary of State, worries that the same dynamic may be at play in the geological front. In times of catastrophe, there is always lingering national trauma.

Sánchez-López and the members of Team Primex are hopeful that this study will be a catalyst to help set in motion a plan to quake harden Puerto Rico’s residential and commercial infrastructure. They believe this is the perfect time to act because billions in federal funds are coming down the pike. Failing to act while waiting for tectonic plates to pummel infrastructure could cost the island billions of dollars, not to mention the spectre of lives lost. That is a mistake we can ill afford to repeat.  

Editor’s note: This editorial was first published on Dec. 9, 2021, issue of Caribbean Business.

Subscribe here to read about the most important developments of the week.

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