Although the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) administration has been given notice to avoid further structural damages in its campuses in case of earthquakes, the President of the institution, Jorge Haddock, acknowledges that there is no plan or a cost estimate to fix the flaws, which due to lack of maintenance and old construction defects, make some buildings vulnerable to possible earthquakes.
A group of structural engineers — who inspected the 11 campuses last January after the earthquakes — approved the use of most of its facilities, but identified at least 92 pre-existing flaws, some dating to inspections done in 2017 that should be taken care of.
As of Feb. 11, the UPR had only addressed five of the identified claims, six were in the process of repair and had half-mitigated 12 of the reported flaws, according to a list the university administration gave the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish). For the rest, solutions for 37 issues were already defined and are about to be addressed, and 17 have not been tackled. The list the UPR sent to the CPI left out 15 indications made by engineers, making it unclear whether they will be handled.
The engineers’ observations were included in the “Structural Evaluations of the University of Puerto Rico System’s Campuses Report,” prepared by the Central Administration’s Physical Development and Infrastructure Office on Jan. 15, 2020.
A month after this report was issued, Haddock acknowledged to the CPI that the UPR does not have a detailed plan to address all of the observations nor an estimate of the expenses required to address the improvements.
He shrugged off the issue by saying those are only recommendations that don’t limit the use or access to the buildings.
“Engineers recommend that these [pre-existing flaws] be rectified, but that does not jeopardize the stability of buildings in case of an earthquake. This doesn’t put the safety of the building at risk, otherwise we would not have started classes,” said Haddock.
The campuses are currently working on their individual plans to deal with pre-existing damages, said Jennifer Lugo, project coordinator of the Central Administration’s Physical Development Office.
“Some of the [campuses] have been addressing some of these flaws as part of [the] permanent improvements,” program, she added without specifying which campuses and which problems had been addressed. However, she also acknowledged that these plans are still in the making and that the Central Administration doesn’t have a document that lays down the strategy to address all of the warnings. After talking to several university officials, the impression is that things are being addressed on a “day-to -day,” basis, but there is no long term plan for the UPR system as a whole.
The project coordinator at the Central Administration’s Physical Development Office said some of the flaws the engineers identified after the earthquakes relate to damages that occurred after Hurricane María.
The UPR’s Permanent Improvement Program has approved 75 projects at different stages of development (planning, design, bids, construction and liquidation) amounting to $154 million, of which only $24 million has been used, the CPI found.
According to Haddock, the reason that just 15% of the money allocated this fiscal year has been disbursed for permanent improvement projects is because the university must comply with a rigorous planning, design and approval structure before disbursing the funds in full.
“The money is allocated and there are projects lined up that exceed the funds available. So not only is this money going to be used for projects that are in progress, but also to [match] other projects that we have in the pipeline when additional funds arrive,” he said.
Haddock prefers to focus on the lack of funds and bureaucratic processes for the use of the money at the UPR as factors that limit the infrastructure improvement projects.
He claimed that the cuts that the institution has seen in its budget limit investing in these improvements. Compared to 2018, this year the UPR received $291.8 million less from the General Fund allocation due to adjustments required by the Fiscal Control Board (JCF, in Spanish).
This amount will be $71 million less when the next fiscal year budget for 2020-2021 goes into effect, according to the institution’s Fiscal Plan that the JCF approved in June 2019.
The university official said the lack of money for these repairs is also due to the slow reimbursement of funds approved and obligated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) corresponding to the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.
In December 2019, the CPI reported that two years after the hurricane, the public university had only received less than 1% of the recovery funds requested to FEMA.
Two months after that publication, the FEMA funding allocation situation remains the same. According to data from the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, known as COR3, as of Feb. 24, 2020, the UPR has only received $4,020,236 of the $88,051,938 allocated by FEMA.
The CPI asked FEMA if the UPR should resubmit the reimbursement applications and the proposals for permanent improvement projects for infrastructure affected after the quakes.
The federal agency explained that in 2018, the Government of Puerto Rico updated the Puerto Rico Construction Code, which adopted the International Code Council’s International Construction regulations, so that all requests for public assistance funds in Puerto Rico were already certified as being Code-compliant. According to FEMA, this rule is part of the guidelines required by the Public Assistance Alternative Procedures Guide (Section 428 of the Stanford Act).
Last December, Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced that the UPR would receive a portion of the $100 million set aside as part of the State Recovery Funds that would be under COR3’s supervision, to provide funds for agencies, municipalities and eligible entities to start their small projects, whose cost does not exceed $123,100.
But two months later, the UPR doesn’t yet have any approved projects under the “small projects” category, said the interim director of the Central Administration’s Physical and Infrastructure Development Office, Adrián López-Nunci. Furthermore, it’s unknown how much money the institution will receive from the allocation that the Governor announced.
On Wednesday, Feb. 12, a student from the UPR-Mayagüez Campus (RUM, in Spanish) in the western coast, recorded with her mobile phone a waterfall that dropped from a lamp in room Q-243 of the Chemistry Building. More than a year ago, the panels were removed from the structure’s three levels, leaving students and teachers exposed to water leaks every time it rains.
In November, the chancellor, Agustín Rullán-Toro, told the CPI that the situation in the Chemistry building was related to older deterioration that worsened after Hurricane María made landfall in 2017. This situation caused the revision of the design done by CMA Architects & Engineers that would replace the air conditioning system’s mechanical parts, which delayed the process to open a bid for the project.
Although the chancellor told the CPI that he expected the improvements in this building to be completed by the end of 2020, the bidding process for the project has not yet started. Given the situation reported in room Q-243, Rullán-Toro adjusted the date and warned that the work could take up to a year and a half. In written statements, Haddock said the Central Administration allocated $6.4 million to move that project forward.
But that’s not the only building that shows deterioration or flaws in the Mayagüez campus. This campus, established in 1911, registered 37 warnings in inspections done by a group of engineering professors of that campus led by Ismael Pagán, director of the RUM’s School of Civil Engineering.
Engineer Luis Manuel Cid was hired for further site inspections. He also inspected the campuses of Arecibo, Cayey, Medical Sciences, Utuado and the Central Administration in San Juan.
In Mayagüez, the structures that produced the highest number of warnings were the library, the Luis Stefani building, the Biology building, the swimming pool and the student center.
During a Jan. 12 inspection of the pool done by the engineers, three large vertical cracks were detected in the seams of two walls which, although they existed previously, grew after the recent earthquakes. The inspection recommended limiting access to the area.
Another area that was also recommended for closure was the cafeteria and the Student Center’s outdoor eating area. Engineers found that the cafeteria floor foundation is completely rusted, so they urged a much more detailed evaluation of the area. Rullán-Toro told the CPI that access to areas identified by the engineers as not safe has already been limited.
Despite these and other situations identified on this campus, the chancellor of the RUM agreed with the president of the UPR that these notices are recommendations that the UPR doesn’t have to accept in full.
“[All of the flaws] won’t be addressed for immediate repair. The immediate thing is the cracks in the walls. But there are no repairs on the premises that are urgent,” Rullán-Toro said.
These flaws would put the structures at risk in several years. Wouldn’t it be better to address them now to prevent the situation from getting worse? the CPI asked the Chancellor of the Mayagüez Campus.
“We could very well address them, but they don’t compromise the structure. There’s no danger that things will collapse or cause harm to the people inside,” he assured.
The opinion of the engineers who drew up the report is that improper maintenance along with the seismic activity that has been recorded in Puerto Rico could put the buildings at risk in the long term.
The defects in the UPR buildings are not new and most were notified prior to the January 2020 earthquakes. In November 2019, Eng. Luis Manuel Cid listed a series of flaws at the Arturo Morales-Carrión building — the campus’ main building — and the UPR-Cayey’s Student Center.
Erosion and sinking foundation were some of the problems identified that are affecting some walls and floors in both structures.
The scenario is evident at the Arturo Morales-Carrión building “in classrooms where the floor is clearly separated from the walls.” In addition, Cid said the classroom walls are hanging from the ceiling, which “is dangerous in case of an earthquake, because the wall is completely loose at its base.” He added that, in the building’s hallways, the walls have dropped along with the floor tiles, which “is dangerous in case of an earthquake or a hurricane, because this wall is completely loose on top and could tip over.”
Similarly, the expert recommended the immediate removal of a series of architectural elements made in cement that allow sunlight and the wind to come in, as they are completely loose and represent “imminent danger.”
An inspection conducted on Feb. 6, 2019 at the Neurobiology Building of the Medical Sciences Campus located on Norzagaray Street in Old San Juan, revealed that the structure presents severe corrosion problems in the column steel rods, beams, slabs and walls that have caused the concrete to detach and multiple major cracks throughout the building, said Cid.
Although he said the structure still appears to be stable, its corrosion must be addressed quickly because, as time goes by, it will get worse and could affect the building´s stability. He added that, given the building’s state of deterioration, some loose pieces could fall off, with or without earthquakes, making it a dangerous situation.
The project coordinator of the Central Administration’s Physical Development Office said that the UPR received a federal grant that will address, among other things, filling the cracks, walls and paint in this building.
But it is unknown when the work will begin and how much will it cost, because, according to the university administration, this project has been in the phase of identifying the specifications of the tasks required since 2019, to then move on to open the bidding process.
The architect did not answer the CPI’s question about why it has taken a year to start sketching up the repair plan for that building. She simply replied that it is a “very particular” project whose damage has accelerated due to the location of the structure that is very close to the ocean.
In the case of the Río Piedras Campus, at least two previous warnings had been issued regarding pre-existing flaws that could put the Sports Complex buildings at risk, as well as the University High School’s (UHS) lunchroom.
Eng. Mónica Santos, of Enterprise IGC Group, says part of the problem in the lunchroom is that an extension made to the structure, was built mostly out of cement blocks and few structural elements.
“If they want to implement a lasting and safer solution for the staff that works there, it is suggested that they demolish that area and rebuild it by properly preparing the ground to give it a more solid foundation, with a better designed structure and construction,” Santos recommended.
But the campus has not identified the funds needed to address this problem. Although he refused to grant an interview, the Río Piedras Campus chancellor, Luis Ferrao-Delgado, said in written statements that the lunchroom is closed, since it requires a $3 million investment that they expect to receive from Central Administration as part of the permanent improvements projects. He said the deadline to start this project is within 12 months.
Given that the lunchroom kitchen is closed, the UHS’s administration has been forced to bring breakfast and lunch for students from other cafeterias, said Roberto Guzmán, student representative before the University Board. However, the student said that sometimes the administration tells them the day before that service will not be available and suggests they bring money to buy food in the school cafeteria or from a hot dog cart parked in front of the UHS.
In the case of the Sports Complex, there is a structural problem in one of the columns in the women’s bathroom due to the massive presence of corrosion of the steel rods. According to Ferrao-Delgado, a $661,000 investment of permanent improvement funds is required for this project and they expect to begin the work in six months.
Problems were also identified at the Río Piedras campus — founded in 1903 — related to a lack of proper maintenance and construction defects that over the years have compromised some structures.
After the earthquakes, some of these areas — such as the Archeology warehouse or the first level of the Drama Department’s props storage room in the Eugenio María de Hostos building — had to be closed because they represent a danger to the students and personnel.
Eng. Santos also identified similar problems in the biology building. She pointed out that the structure shows ground settlement that has caused distortion and several cracks in much of the hallway of the floor that connects to classrooms on the first level.
The lack of maintenance also affects the Resi-Campus building, the only on-site campus dorm currently open, as Torre Norte has been closed for reconstruction since Hurricane María hit in 2017. At Resi-Campus, Eng. Santos warned that she found areas of moisture accumulation caused by leaks. She said in the long-term, the humidity can cause steel rods to oxidize, “subsequently causing the development of cracks and detachments in the concrete leading up to a loss of the stability of the structural elements, which can cause irreparable damage with possible in-building collapses.”
The CPI questioned the UPR president why several structures of the Río Piedras campus reached that point of extreme deterioration.
However, Haddock shrugged of the matter and referred the questions to the Río Piedras campus chancellor.
“These are situations that precede my arrival [to the presidency]. We’re working with the campuses to handle these maintenance situations. If you want something immediately, I recommend that you contact [the chancellor] Dr. Ferrao,” he said.
The CPI insisted on an interview with Ferrao, but his special assistant for Press and Communications Affairs, Mario Alegre-Barrios, said he “had no further comments” in addition to the information sent in writing.
Meanwhile, in a prior interview with the CPI, David Muñoz-Hernández, president of the Workers’ Union that represents 1,200 cleaning and maintenance employees in the UPR’s 11 campuses, said the UPR’s current administration doesn’t supply the materials and the necessary equipment needed to maintain the infrastructure at the campuses. According to the union leader, this equipment shortage has worsened in recent years.
Víctor Rodríguez-Velázquez is a member of Report for America.