Lack of Funding Delays the Integration of 18 Years of Seismic Data Into Puerto Rico’s Earthquake Hazard Maps and the Building Code

US territories, such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as well as the states of Hawaii and Alaska, have not updated their seismic hazard maps for more than a decade and are last in line with federal agencies for this to happen, while the same map was updated in 2018 for the 48 continental states.

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Offices of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus.

Machines costing thousands of dollars are operated from a small office on the college campus. Keeping them in good condition costs the government’s coffers several million annually. They are seismic and tide-gauge station devices that are part of the tsunami and earthquake detection system. Monitoring this information not only contributes to the generation of data in Puerto Rico, but also gathers data on the US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic.

The data generated is analyzed and interpreted by three research professors from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayagüez, who, with the support of some students, do their best to document these phenomena, while informing the island’s population about the risks.

These same three professors are responsible for answering to  the media, issue recommendations, and are consulted by multiple agencies. Their work in the last year has increased significantly as a result of the more than 10,000 tremors associated with the seismic sequence that began in December 2019 in the South region.

The shortage of staff and resources for seismic research at the UPR, as well as the island’s low standing in the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) chain of priorities, jeopardize the possibility that the announced resilient recovery be completed in the southern municipalities affected by the 2020 earthquakes, and that the revision of the island’s Building Code scheduled for this year, incorporates the update of the last 18 years to the seismic hazard maps.

Although UPR scientists praised the current Code for being in line with international standards, they warned that as long as the Puerto Rico seismic hazard map is not updated, the construction guidelines will not necessarily address the infrastructure needs that became more relevant after the earthquakes last year.

“The Puerto Rico Building Code is very good. But what they’re possibly not telling us is that the Code is only as good as the information you have to feed that code. Because if you don’t include the correct [geological] faults in that Building Code, then that code falls short. The problem is the lack of information, of how we manage to have the complete image of all seismic activity,” said Víctor Huérfano, director of the  Seismic Network 

The 2020 seismic sequence in Puerto Rico is mainly associated with the Punta Montalva fault located in the southern region. According to Huérfano the first academic publication on this fault was in the 1980s. Although research on this geological formation is ongoing and studies led by scientists from the UPR in Mayagüez continue (RUM in Spanish), the USGS does not yet recognize the fault.

On the left, Víctor Huérfano, director of the Seismic Network.

Due to Puerto Rico’s colonial status, the seismic hazard map can only be updated by the USGS. This has not been done since 2003 and it isn’t clear when the Punta Montalva fault will be included on a map that in turn reinforces any Building Code update. Getting the federal government’s recognition of  a new fault requires extensive fieldwork and a team of researchers who publish their results in peer-approved academic publications.

“To update the map, you have to locate the fault and be able to pinpoint it. You have to know exactly where it is. Studies have to be done on what is the maximum magnitude that this fault can generate and the recurrence of earthquakes. For you to know the recurrence of earthquakes, you have to know how one tectonic plate is moving with respect to the other. This requires studies that take a long time,” José Martínez Cruzado, who is a professor at the Department of Civil Engineering and director of the Puerto Rico Strong Movement Program (PRSMP), explained to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).

“Let’s not expect that because of what happens in Puerto Rico we’re going to make a dramatic change in the [Building] Code. What is specific to Puerto Rico is the seismic risk [threat] map. What really needs to be emphasized is that seismic risk map, which is a seismological, geological situation. Once incorporated, that changes the strength with which engineers have to design buildings. When those faults in the middle of the island are considered, the design strength is likely to increase significantly. You have to design for greater strength. Construction costs are going to increase, but the important thing is citizen safety,” the engineering professor said.

A USGS spokesperson told the CPI that although the agency is aware of the need to update Puerto Rico’s seismic hazard map, there is no certainty when it will occur.

“The 2020 earthquake sequence has also elevated the priority to update the seismic hazard maps for Puerto Rico in order that work to rebuild and retrofit the island’s buildings and infrastructure are done with the best available estimates of potential earthquake shaking. Planning for updating the Puerto Rico seismic hazard maps is underway,” said the associate coordinator of the USGS Seismic Hazards Program, Dr. Michael Blanpied.

However, when asked why the map has not been updated for almost two decades, he acknowledged that Puerto Rico has been treated differently compared to the states.

“Since the 1990s the USGS has regularly updated its National Seismic Hazard Model for the continental 48 states about every six years, on a schedule aligned with periodic updates to building codes (a process managed by FEMA). Seismic hazard maps for Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the other Territories have not been updated as frequently as the mainland model because of resource limitations,” Blanpied said.

Like Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands’ seismic hazard map was last updated in 2003. The maps of Guam, the North Mariana Islands and US Samoa, and the Pacific Islands were updated in 2012. Hawaii had its update in 1998, while Alaska’s update occurred in 2007. For the 48 contiguous states, the map was updated in 2018.

As for the updates to the seismic hazard maps for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, Blanpied said the USGS has not yet established a “firm budget,” nor a calendar that sets the dates to begin and complete the job. It is only certain that it will not be before 2023.

“That project [for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands] will commence upon completion of a seismic hazard model for the 50 United States that is currently in progress for publication in 2023,” he added.

Research about Punta Montalva, in the southern region, is currently being conducted, by the program that Martínez Cruzado directs, as well as by the Seismic Network that is part of the UPR-Mayagüez Campus Department of Geology. The data is being submitted in articles for the evaluation of scientific journals. If published, these academic articles will strengthen the argument for the USGS to include the Punta Montalva fault in a future update of the seismic hazard map.

“Those [seismic hazard] maps are done at the federal level. Puerto Rico is on the to-do list [of the USGS] on the next few years,” said Seismic Network Researcher Elizabeth Vanacore, who is working on an academic publication on Punta Montalva with the results of an investigation presented in December 2020 at the American Geological Union academic conference.

“It comes down to what that paper includes. If the paper says, here is the fault location, here is what we think the recurrence rates are and that type of information, then that might be enough to put it into the model [map]. This is not a small task to put this information together,” the scientist added.

Dr. Vanacore is, along with Dr. Huérfano and Dr. Alberto López, only one of the three people who are professors and lead investigators of the Seismic Network projects. Her work is split between research, teaching and administrative matters, including attending to the media every time seismic events occur in the island.

“The key is not only funding to do the research and invest in equipment, but it’s also key to have more researchers,” said Vanacore, who noted the research contributions of graduate students from the Mayagüez Campus.

Martínez Cruzado agreed with Vanacore: “we’re overwhelmed with thousands of things that we have to do at the university.”

“There isn’t a single geophysics program at the University of Puerto Rico, despite having two seismic networks in Mayagüez. It’s logical that we should have a geophysics program and that we have four to six good professors in that area to work on seismology,” the director of the Strong Movement Program said.

In response to questions from the CPI about the need for more research staff for the Seismic Network, the executive vice president of the UPR, Ubaldo Córdoba Figueroa, said that neither the university system’s vice presidency of Academic Affairs and Research, nor the Mayagüez Campus have received requests “to create new positions or allocate the budget for hiring research professors at the PRSN.”

Córdoba Figueroa said the Network receives most of its operational budget from legislative allocations. Huérfano acknowledged that although the Network is not having major problems with its operational budget, it does need   funds for research. Martínez Cruzado and Vanacore agreed.

“There’s one aspect that requires more attention from the authorities, which is research. This aspect isn’t included in the operation’s organizational chart. We’re ok in the day-to-day, but research requires scientific staff.  We have to do it, but there aren’t enough resources,” the director of the PRSN said.

Huérfano said that strengthening the research staff is a recommendation they have already made. He said it’s up to the RUM’s academic departments to request the funds for more researchers. Specifically, he said that he has recommended having scientific staff in academic departments to collaborate with the Seismic Network’s work.

The data needed to update the seismic hazard map,  “would not correspond to the Seismic Network but to the Strong Movement Program of the Mayagüez Campus, ” said Córdoba Figueroa.

“If this request comes up, it could be channeled with researchers from the RUM’s Department of Civil Engineering and Surveying, which has a considerable number of experts in Structural Engineering,” added the executive vice president of the UPR.

Although the university administration said that the investigations related to developing data that contribute to reviewing the USGS seismic hazard map corresponds to the Strong Movement Program and not to the Seismic Network, researchers from both programs are currently working together to move this objective forward jointly with the federal government.

For example, Dr. Vanacore from the Seismic Network and the Department of Geology, is one of the researchers working on updating the ground motion prediction equations.

Whether the Code will integrate climate crisis considerations still pending

The revision of the Puerto Rico Building Code adjusted to the needs that became evident after Hurricane María in 2017, and the 2020 earthquakes in the South, is facing another hurdle. Although the government says it recognizes the need to produce a national mitigation plan that considers the climate crisis in the development of new construction and permitting guidelines, there is no guarantee that these recommendations will be adopted by those who will evaluate possible Code changes.

Secretary of State, Lawrence Seilhamer said “one of the criteria [for the Building Code] is definitely going to be the compliance with what will be   the climate change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan.”

His comments, after the first meeting of the Reconstruction Council appointed by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, referred to Act No. 33 of 2019, known as the Puerto Rico Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Act, which he authored while he was a senator.

The law included the appointment of a Committee of Experts on Climate Change that would work on drafting the Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan, but the plan was not ready by the established June 2020 deadline, due to the lack of budget and other administrative problems in the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish).

Prior to her departure from La Fortaleza, former Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, signed amendments to extend the deadline until October 31, 2021.

Seilhamer said that 21 months after the law was signed, funds were finally identified for the Committee of Experts to get off the ground. The director of the Office of Management and Budget (OGP, in Spanish), Juan Carlos Blanco, told the CPI that $100,000 was identified in the DNER budget for the current fiscal year. Another $20,000 was  added to that amount, which the OGP chief said were also identified in the current government budget.

The $120,000 allocated for the remainder of this fiscal year 2020/2021 is not even half of the $300,000 that Seilhamer promised, said a Committee of Experts on Climate Change member who spoke off the record.

Gov. Pierluisi included a $2 million allocation for the Committee of Experts on Climate Change in the draft budget for fiscal year 2021/2022. The budget is subject to the approval of the Fiscal Control Board.

The government office with the power to adopt and endorse the Building Code is the Department of Economic Development and Commerce’s (DDEC, in Spanish) Permit Management Office (OGPe, in Spanish).   

One of the ex officio members of the Committee of Experts on Climate Change is precisely DDEC Secretary Manuel Cidre.

However, there is no guarantee that the recommendations published in the Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan will be integrated into the Building Code.

“Once they [the Committee of Experts on Climate Change] make the suggestions and their study, that will move on to our [Building Code] Committee, which does know about construction. We’re going to be evaluating it because all the suggestions are definitely taken very seriously,” OGPe Deputy Secretary Gabriel Hernández Rodríguez said to the CPI.

The head of OGPe also said that the possibility of amending the Code to increase seismic accelerations is currently under evaluation. The recommendations from professionals in the Seismic Network and the UPR’s Mayagüez University Campus will be taken into consideration in that process, Hernández Rodríguez said.

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America

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