Carlos Feliciano-Acosta, a native of La Esperanza neighborhood in Guánica, was a student at the Agripina Seda School in the 1970s. In the 80s, he was a teacher in that school and between 2011 and 2013 was its director. Seeing the ruins of the structure toppled by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale that shook Puerto Rico at dawn on Jan. 7 he remembered that while he ran the school drills were common and that the Education Department (DE, in Spanish) gave them a “multi-risk plan” after certifying that the building could resist a tremor.

“They lied to us,” he said when questioning the DE’s certification that ensured the school built in 1973 could resist an earthquake. “There is no access [to the building plans]. They tell you in the plan that it is certified,” said Feliciano-Acosta, while recalling that as director he was able to identify defects in the structure due to a three-story expansion built in the early 1970s.

Guánica has seven schools, according to the 2018-2019 list published by the DE, of which Feliciano-Acosta believes none is suitable to receive students after the quakes. Maybe he’s right.

Some 750 meters from the Agripina Seda School is the Áurea Quiles Claudio High School, built in 1991. The stairs of the building’s facade are completely scarred by a vertical crack. On the second floor, a steel beam pokes out from where there was once a piece of ceiling in the hallway and a wide vertical crack crosses the corner of the column that joins the façade. Inside the school, pieces of cement lie on the grassy patio.

Photo by Luis R. Vidal | Center for Investigative Journalism

On the facade of the Áurea Quiles Claudio school you can see cracks in the entrance stairs and on the roof of the second floor.

Jean Carlos-Hernández, a seventh grader and resident of La Esperanza, strolls in front of this high school. He attended the Agripina Seda. From what he has seen in his town , he believes none of the nearby schools are in conditions to receive students. Although, he says, “the Elsa Couto [school], of the Fuig [sector], looks good.” Jean Carlos is one of four siblings, two of them elementary level students, who anticipates he will begin studying his next semester in a converted shipping container.

Two blocks from the school where the young man studied until last semester, is the Maria L. McDougall Elementary School, built in 1918. At a first glance, the one-story structure looks solid, except for some missing balusters in its fence.

After the Agripina Seda school collapsed, the DE ordered the inspection of all public schools despite lacking essential information, such as the year they were built.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) asked the DE and the Public Buildings Authority (AEP, in Spanish) for information about the year the schools were built and it took both agencies five days to produce fragmented documents, with only some of the data. Both agencies confirmed that this information was not being used for inspections. The Government has been unable to produce a complete list of closed and open schools, and the year they were built. 

As part of the request, the CPI also asked the DE which schools closed due to damage caused by María, where were the students transferred to, and how many were they. The CPI also asked for the list of companies hired to do the for schools inspections after the hurricane and how much they charged, the list of schools closed from 2000 to 2018, and whether the recommended post-hurricane structural inspections were carried out.

The agency has not provided any of these data other than saying through the deputy undersecretary of Administration that “a firm of architects and engineers” complied with the recommendations. The CPI confirmed that there is also no directory indicating which schools have the short column construction defect, which has been detected as a determining risk factor.

The responsibility of supervising the schools condition is split between the AEP and the Office for the Maintenance of Public Schools (OMEP, in Spanish), but neither agency regularly examines the schools infrastructure, said José Izquierdo-Encarnación, who has chaired the AEP’s Board four times.

New inspections underway

Schools were inspected about two years ago after Hurricane María, but the structural review of their vulnerability to earthquakes was not included at the time. Although the DE has only published 537 inspections done after the hurricane, the CPI confirmed that there had been a recommendation for a structural engineer to inspect at least 77 of those schools, including Agripina Seda and María L. McDougall in Guánica. On the DE’s website , 595 schools are missing inspection reports, and the agency did not provide the list of the 22 schools that closed after Hurricane Maria to confirm if they were among those inspected.

The post-hurricane inspections were carried out by personnel of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the College of Engineers and Surveyors, and DE contractors who were not identified by the agency. Education also failed to provide the cost of such inspections .

Zenaida Feliciano, who has been teaching science for a decade at Agripina Sena, recalled that after María the faculty identified cracks that appeared in the halls. Even before the hurricane she saw separations between structures. “We had been told that we were safe, but we could have all died,” she claimed while pointing out that she does not remember visits done by engineers after the hurricane.

After the earthquake, the AEP was given the task of inspecting 389 schools, for which it hired private engineers, since it could not complete the task with the 14 in it´s staff , agency Director Melitza López-Pimentel said. She said only two of those 14 engineers are structural engineers and the only ones who can certify if the schools were affected by the quakes, while the other engineers can only check the exterior of the buildings.

Another 269 schools will be inspected by Ingenium Professional Group, hired by the Infrastructure Financing Authority (AFI, in Spanish), although the contract is not yet available in the Office of the Comptroller website. The remaining 198 schools were commissioned for inspection to OMEP. The DE set aside $595,000 in funds from the Secretary’s Office to hire ROV Engineering Services, Benítez, Ramos & Associates PSC, and EAS & Associates PSC for these tasks. The four companies executives donated to New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) candidates and have active contracts with other government agencies.

The images of the destroyed three-story school in Guánica showed that “the threat of earthquakes in schools has never been addressed seriously,” said Geomorphologist José Molinelli-Freytes, who for years has been alerting about the risk of earthquakes and the importance of dedicating public resources to preparation. Molinelli also warned former Education Secretary Julia Keleher that in the face of the massive school closures she ordered, the benchmark that should have been used was their ability to resist earthquakes.

The Education Secretary Eligio Hernández-Pérez estimated that 95% of schools are non-compliant with the 2018 Building Code.

In his attempt to provide some assurance, Hernández-Pérez made clear that classes will not resume until all schools are inspected by structural engineers who must submit a certification detailing the conditions of each campus. However, in a radio interview at WKAQ last Friday, he said that certified schools can begin the semester effective Jan. 22. According to the contracts with the engineering firms they have until Feb. 29 to submit their inspection documents.

Meanwhile, the former secretary of the Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTOP, in Spanish) and head of the Interagency Infrastructure Committee that Gov. Wanda Vázquez-Garced created, Carlos I. Pesquera, said visual inspections will initially focus on the educational regions of Arecibo, Bayamón, Caguas and Humacao where the damage was less so they can start there their semester next week.

Civil Engineer José Izquierdo-Encarnación noted that criteria on earthquake resistance have been in the document that regulates construction in the island since 1987. He believes those schools that were built between 1950 and 1987— when the Code omitted these requirements — should be inspected promptly. He expressed certainty about the resistance of schools the U.S. government built in Puerto Rico before 1950, as they survived the San Fermin earthquake in 1918. The US invaded Puerto Rico in 1898.

Peñuelas’ only high school, the Josefa Vélez Bauzá, was built in 1998 and the CPI witnessed it shows severe damage, such as cracks that cross from one end of the main building to the other, and other diagonal fractures on the ceiling of the halls of the second floor.

This school is attended by the 14-year-old daughter of Elizabeth Ocasio, a resident of Tallaboa Alta, a sector of Peñuelas. The defect of the so-called “short column,” recently noted by the College of Engineers and Surveyors as an element of risk in these constructions, is visible from the school’s gate.

Ocasio has four children, two of school age. “All of my children’s schools have been closed,” she lamented, while adding that her daughter will not go to the Josefa Vélez Bauzá school out of fear for her safety. The option would be to attend the Bethzaida Velázquez school in Ponce, which is the closest, generates misgivings for Ocasio, since a friend whose daughter goes to that school told her that it wasn’t in good condition either.

The Bethzaida Velázquez School was another on the list recommending an inspection by a structural engineer after María struck because it showed unevenness, and inclined stairs and beams, in addition to cracks in the second level.

The CPI requested all of the school evaluations reports prepared by the USACE after Hurricane María, but neither that agency nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who paid for the inspections, provided the information.

Inspections are not looking for earthquake resistance

Although the DE determined that the initial visual inspections focus only on determining whether the schools were in the condition they were in before the seismic activity on Jan. 7, the school communities want a complete structural evaluation by specialized engineers, who can ensure that the structures are not breached.

In addition to taking into account visible damage, the condition of the terrain (unevenness, cracks), where the school is located (areas prone to tsunamis or landslides), the materials and techniques used for its construction, as well as the design are also considered.

“At the moment what is being check is visible damage to the structural system, not if they (schools) are earthquake-resistant,” said Pesquera, while ensuring that the Governor will seek funds to promote a program that evaluates the earthquake resistance of public structures, which entails collecting information from different agencies, such as the Planning Board.

Another of the schools on the list for a recommended visit by a structural engineer after María is the Visual Arts High School in Santurce. The building, built in 1925, was inspected by a civil engineer last Saturday, Maribella Maldonado-Pérez of the Parents Council, confirmed.

The third floor of the Central School of Visual Arts in Santurce was closed because part of the roof continues to fall.

According to Maldonado-Pérez, the inspector did not recommend a subsequent visit by a structural engineer since he saw no earthquake-related damage. However, since María made landfall, parts of the school’s third floor remain closed because leaks have caused the collapse of the ceiling stucco. OMEP only handled a rat infestation in the library last summer but has not conducted the repair of the third floor.

For Architect Edwin Quiles, determining the safety of a structure should not fall solely on the date it was built because, for example, military government constructions — mentioned by Izquierdo-Encarnación — used much more rigid and stiff materials compared to today’s.

Molinelli-Freytes, on the other hand, added that, “the vulnerability of a school depends not only on the Construction Code under which it was built but where it is located, some in areas prone to landslides or near tsunami zones.”

Both Engineer Izquierdo-Encarnación and Geomorphologist Molinelli-Freytes agreed that those schools located in areas prone to tsunamis, floods or landslides should be discarded. The former added that the school’s deterioration and the sinking of the terrain should also be taken into account.

“When the issue of the school closings came up, I said the priority had to be to close those that would not withstand an earthquake, and if that had been considered there would have been no opposition to the closing of schools because if I know that I’ll be sending my child to a school that can collapse, I would be grateful if they closed it and put my child in a safe school,” said Molinelli-Freytes.

Schools that are shelters

Considering Izquierdo-Encarnación point of view regarding the schools built before the Construction Code of 1987, at least 64 shelters available in 2019 should be ruled out, according to the Housing Department’s list. If schools built before the 50s were also excluded fear of the structure’s age, the number of shelters to be eliminated reaches 91 out of 358.

In Puerto Rico, 84% of emergency shelters are schools.

The Gloria María Borrero School in Guayanilla, built in 2002, is being used to shelter those who feel unsafe in their homes due to the non-stop seismic activity in the South since late 2019. When the CPI visited the school, they had moved people to an adjacent enclosed basketball court, which showed no visible damage after the tremors. They had been taken out of the school because the “cement plaster in lunchroom exploded,” the school’s Principal, Raúl Rivera, said in a telephone interview. However, Housing Department Official, Migdalia Orengo, said that both AEP and Education staff were there at least twice and said there was no damage to worry about in the shelter.

At the Gloria Borrero school’s basketball court, Gloriel Pérez-Ortiz, a resident of the La Playa sector, fed her two little girls who are not of school age. Sitting on the adjoining cot finishing her meal was her seven-year-old niece, a student at Dalila Torres School. Pérez-Ortiz has a one-way ticket to New York for Jan. 25th, along with her husband, daughters and niece.

Her niece’s elementary school was also referred for a structural inspection after María, and when the CPI visited the school, the first two to three feet of a wall of the Special Education Program classroom protruded after a horizontal crack separated that piece from the rest of the wall. Two years ago, a recommendation for a better inspection was issued over unevenness in the kindergarten classroom there.

According to the evacuation zones identified in the Seismic Network’s Tsunami Program maps, the Carmelo I. Ríos de Culebra Ecological School must also be discarded as a shelter.

After the earthquake on Jan. 7, 13 shelters were opened in Utuado, Guayanilla, Coamo, Lares and Maricao, five of which are schools. Of these five municipalities, three mayors confirmed that they had not had communication with the Education Department to coordinate inspections.

According to Utuado Mayor, Ernesto Irizarry-Silva, the shelter located at the Antonio Reyes Padilla school did not show any damage due to the earthquake. However, he said none of the shelters identified in his town for the 2019 hurricane season will be good until all schools are “inspected for structural damage.”

The Mayor of Coamo, Juan Carlos García-Padilla, said the José Felipe Zayas shelter school showed no damage and was certified by the AEP before last hurricane season.

“As a defender of the concept of municipality, and again witnessing the bureaucracy during the emergency, I could have done it (the inspection) already with my engineers,” said García-Padilla in reference to the inspection of 12 schools in his town, which is “really urgent, but I´ve had no communication with Education.”

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Lares, Roberto Pagán-Centeno, said that although the Julio Lebrón Soto School shows no damage from the tremors, “right now there are no evacuees in the school because nobody wants to be inside structures.”

The DE has not mentioned any contingency plan to attend to students who will not be able to return to schools that are not suitable or safe, although on Friday afternoon it authorized services for the Special Education population.

Concerned about not having a contingency plan, the spokeswoman for the Movement for Children and Public Education, Jeanette Morales, added that, “Our special education children are different, if they feel a tremor they will (not always) go running or follow a protocol. There has been no communication (with the DE), how are you going to ensure that staff will be with our children when the school is shaking? My daughter has been in the public system for almost six, seven years, and I have never had an invitation to experience, to see how my daughter will be evacuated if there’s a quake.”

The president of the organization Educamos, who is a teacher at the José Celso Barbosa School in San Juan, said she has never had a drill at her school. “I’m a Special Education teacher and I’m on a second floor. In my school I have 52 students with autism and an assistant. Me, alone in a room with a door, how do I handle that?” Migdalia Santiago asked.

Some 202 schools have been built since 1987, according to information the agency provided to the CPI. The most recent, the San Isidro Vocational School in Canóvanas, was completed in 2016. These are schools that should comply with the construction codes of 1987 and that, according to Engineers Juan F. Alicea Flores, president of the College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico, and Izquierdo-Encarnación, former Secretary of Transportation and Public Works, must withstand a major earthquake.

“The 1987 Code is the first that introduces ductility to concrete buildings in Puerto Rico,” said Izquierdo-Encarnación about the concept that explains the flexibility in the columns that support a structure and prevents them from splitting as a result of the movement of the earth.

“All Public Buildings (Authority) structures built after 1987 are supposed to bear in mind the problem of the short column and are supposed to be designed for ductility, that the building can ‘dance’ with the earthquake, and that nothing happens to them,” he added.

The “short column” failure is a structural problem that was identified in schools built using the so-called tropical design. They are inflexible short support columns that would cause the building to collapse as a result of the movement of the earth. Although the College of Engineers and Surveyors, as well as field experts, have warned about this problem since before the 2000s hundreds of schools in Puerto Rico are designed this way and only a few of them have been fixed.

The serious security risk that this design represents was already confirmed during the earthquake in Venezuela in 1997, where buildings with this same design collapsed and others were damaged.

“The problem now is that the government has no precise information about which of those that were repaired are still in use, or if some of them were among those that were taken out of service when schools were closed. The first step would be to establish how many of those schools fixed the problem, which ones are available for use and which ones are out,” Alicea-Flores said.

The Luis Muñoz Rivera school located in the Mameyal neighborhood of Dorado was built in 1989 and had the “tsunami ready” and “storm ready” certifications. In addition, it served as a shelter for the community. When the faculty, and school parents received a verbal notification in the summer of 2018 that their school would be closed, they set up a protest camp that lasted about 40 days. In the end, teachers and students were relocated to the Jacinto López Martínez urban school, whose structure dates back to 1929 and looks deteriorated.

Juanita Maymí, who has been teaching kindergarten for 27 years, and fought to keep the school open, recalled that, in a meeting with an assistant to former Secretary Keleher, the only reasons presented to them to justify the closure was a wrong fact about the number of enrolled students. The condition of the infrastructure, she said, was not part of the conversation.

“I still think that the school shouldn’t have been closed because it was a very good school. I think they should go to check the facilities and consider reopening it,” said the teacher.

For Mercedes Martínez-Padilla, president of the Puerto Rico Teachers Federation, the fact that the Education Department has closed schools with better infrastructure and put students and teachers in schools in worse conditions borders on “criminal negligence.”

“It’s evidence that the Government of Puerto Rico and the Education Department didn’t have a plan and the earthquake a week ago confirms the negligence of the actions by Julia Keleher and (former Governor) Ricardo Rosselló, which put us at greater risk today,” she said.


Cristina del Mar Quiles contributed to this story.