Unsuitable 23% of Shelters Listed by the Government of Puerto Rico for the Hurricane Season

Municipalities demand clear communication from the Departments of Housing and Health, facing a potential triple emergency due to earthquakes, the coronavirus and hurricanes.

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At Peñuelas Webster Elementary School, the access ramp is detached from the main structure.

Photo by Luis R. Vidal | Center for Investigative Journalism

Twenty three percent of the buildings on the list of shelters that the Department of Housing released for the 2020 hurricane season are schools with structural damage due to the earthquakes occurred in the southern part of Puerto Rico about six months ago. Since the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) warned a week ago that, in the southern region alone, that list includes 14 schools with damages classified as “unsuitable or partially unsuitable,” the agency have not revised the document, despite the fact that the hurricane season is underway.

Of the 319 shelters that the Government identified a week ago, 73 are schools damaged from the earthquakes that require repair or shutting down areas, or the damage is so severe that they must close permanently, according to engineers hired by the Department of Education (DE, in Spanish) that inspected them.

In addition to the 14 schools in the south, another 59 school shelters were classified “unsuitable” (red) or “partially suitable” (yellow) are located in 64 municipalities in Puerto Rico. Hormigueros, Aguada, Rincón and Manatí would have to cast off shelters whose schools were classified red. The most urgent case is Rincón, since it only has one unsuitable shelter included in the list. Other towns such as Gurabo, Quebradillas and Salinas have limited space to shelter victims since those that the Department of Housing identified are only “partially suitable” for use.

According to the inspection report of the Manuel García Pérez school in Rincón, structural elements such as beams and columns cracked in every classroom, so its closure was recommended. Popular Democratic Party Mayor Carlos López Bonilla believes “the DE has to repair that school. It was our main shelter during María. There were 120 evacuees there. It has a water tank and solar panels. We urgently need for that school to be repaired because we are basically left without shelters.”

Although the municipal executive said community centers are an option, he will ask for the certification of the Manuel González Melo school as a shelter, which is classified as “suitable” in the post-earthquake inspection. He also said he got permits to rehabilitate the Octavio Cumpiano School, closed in 2017, but the curfew due to COVID 19, delayed the works that the school needs.

The Housing Department did not identify a school shelter in San Sebastián. Its New Progressive Party Mayor Javier Jiménez Pérez recalled that the Manuel Méndez Liciaga (New High School) and the Patria Latorre [school] were certified for Hurricane María, “but they’re not good because they don’t have a [power] plant and have problems with the water tanks.”

If these needs are unmet, he will use the Luis Aymat Coliseum. Although this facility accommodates more than 1,000 people, the distancing required by the coronavirus reduces its capacity. He said about 275 residents from the municipality sought shelter after Hurricane María. After the earthquakes, the Patria Latorre school was classified as “partially suitable.”

Jiménez Pérez was critical in saying that, “they opened the schools after a superficial inspection with companies contracted by AFI [acronym in Spanish for Infrastructure Financing Authority] that did not determine if they had the   short column deficiency or any other risks for students. So, we started to repair schools. All of the schools need an assessment to determine their shortcomings to face an earthquake. The Secretary of Education [Eligio Hernández Pérez] should be proactive during these months.”

The short column is a type of inflexible support wall that could cause the collapse of the structure as a consequence of seismic movement. Before the coronavirus halted the work, personnel from the municipality of San Sebastián fixed four schools that had this defect: Maximiano Salas, Áurea Fuentes, Carmelo Serrano and Ramón María Torres.

Despite what documents delivered by the Government show, Public Housing Administrator William Rodríguez, assured through his press spokesman that “the list of shelters was developed by an interagency committee that includes the Department of Education, including schools suitable to be used as shelters. The schools are moving forward with a repair plan giving priority to those that will be used as shelters.”

Gurabo mayor: A school recommended to be demolished may be used as a shelter

In Gurabo, all of the shelters identified are classified as “partially suitable,” according to inspections. In a first inspection, dated January 15, the engineers recommended demolishing the Margarita Rivera de Janer School after declaring it unsuitable, but the Mayor Rosachely Rivera Santana, insisted to the CPI that this school “has always been used as a primary shelter because it is close to the Emergency Management Center and the hospital. We had already fixed the generator and the water tank. It is suitable to be used as a hurricane shelter. But I don’t want to combine the shelter inspection with the earthquake resistance inspection because a reevaluation has been requested.”

A second inspection on February 6 of this year reclassified the Margarita Rivera de Janer School in Gurabo as “partially suitable” and recommended the closure of the theater room and another area where a roof eaves should be repaired. The other shelter schools, Villa Marina, Matías González and Vidal Serrano, “have too many improvements pending,” said the mayor. If other spaces are needed, she will enable a community center.

Earthquake-affected schools not recommended as shelters

 The president of the Association of Emergency Managers and Security Professionals (AMEPS, in Spanish), Nazario Lugo Burgos, said the certification of shelters falls on a group named by the Department of Housing, which includes personnel from the municipal Emergency Management Office, the Department of Education, and the Office of the Ombudsman for People with Disabilities.

“That group inspects the facilities in use, schools in use, and that they meet the minimum requirements to house people in the event of atmospheric events. That has been the practice for the past 30 years, but it’s based on the premise that if schools are in use, they must comply with structural safety aspects. All of that changed with the earthquakes. The Department of Housing must produce another type of inventory other than these schools to match the number of evacuees or available spaces required by the municipality. That hasn’t been done. They have gone back to schools, some of which were closed, in disuse, to schools that were affected with partial structural damage from the earthquakes and have been re-inspected as shelters, which is totally incorrect. If there’s an affected room in a building, the entire structure is affected, it is compromised. We must look for other spaces, community centers, private centers such as convention centers, which is an adequate space,” he added.

“With the coronavirus emergency, a person’s best option is to take shelter with family members because the risk [in a municipal shelter] is too high. I have told the mayors to be ready to have a maximum of 30% to 35% of the evacuees they used to have in a school shelter. Capacity is cut by more than half, tripling the number of spaces you need to have for the same number of evacuees,” said Lugo Burgos.

Mayors request communication with the agencies

Meanwhile, the Popular Democratic Party Mayor of Salinas, Karylin Bonilla Colón, expressed dismay at the lack of information from the government on managing the shelters.

“Since June 1, I sent a letter to the Secretary of Housing because we’re concerned about how we will manage evacuees in light of the pandemic, how the security protocol will be, how many people can be in a classroom, if they will pre-establish agreements with laboratories to perform rapid tests on evacuees, how COVID-positive people will be treated. [None of these points] has been addressed nor have we been trained [in the operation of the shelters],” the mayor said, while assuring that the Department of Housing certified five shelters but only one, the Carlos Colón Burgos School, classified yellow, has a power generator and water tank. The agency’s list only adds another shelter, the Stella Márquez school, also rated “partially suitable.”

The Department of Housing sent a letter to the mayor saying that they updated their Emergency Shelter Operation Guide “to adjust it to COVID-19” and that the Department of Health (DS, in Spanish) will coordinate the tests to detect the disease in the shelters.

Bonilla Colón said that the other three schools certified as shelters in Salinas are the Félix Garay, the José Padín and the Román Baldorioty de Castro, closed in 2018. Only the first one was classified as “suitable.”

Community centers could be an option, said the Mayor, while recalling that 700 citizens sheltered there after Hurricane María.

“If a significant event occurs, we’re going to have many more evacuees because we have to remember that half of the people who submitted aid requests to FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] were rejected, or the aid they received wasn’t enough. So, many people made temporary repairs pending the federal allocation from the CDBG-DR program, but that’s in the application process [stage], three years after María,” Bonilla Colón said.

“I expect little from the central Government. Given the experiences I’ve had, as a municipality, we have to have our own protocols. The main response falls on the mayors,” Jiménez Pérez warned.

Post-earthquake inspections of four schools included in the list of shelters are not available on the DE’s website, namely: The School of San Juan, José Horacio Cora in Arroyo, Inés María Mendoza in Comerío and José Nevárez in Toa Baja.

With a limited ability at the shelters to avoid infection, and despite FEMA’s recommendations to choose hotels or inns in times of pandemic, the Department of Housing repeated its trend of designating schools as shelters     for this hurricane season. School sites represent 81% of the list. The agency did not answer questions from the CPI on this matter.

Organizations such as the Youth Development Institute (IDJ, in Spanish), which developed a public policy guide in favor of the post-Maria generations, also urges avoiding the use of schools as shelters since the resumption of classes is often delayed while victims are relocated.

As of press time, the Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD, in Spanish) had not updated its hurricane season emergency plan tailored to the epidemic. Since August 2019, the Department of Health (DS, in Spanish) has not updated the operational plan that will regulate mass care during an emergency, which would be ready and include data on COVID-19 upon the start of the hurricane season, Dr. Jessica Cabrera, director of the DS Biosafety Office, told the CPI.

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