This story was originally published by Builder.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September and the rebuild efforts are still in the early stages. Much of the island nation and U.S. territory is still without power as major repairs and upgrades are needed.
In the early hours of Feb. 9, Congress, as part of its latest spending bill, approved nearly $90 billion in new disaster aid for U.S. states and territories ravaged by hurricanes or wildfires last year. According to The New York Times, that includes $4.8 billion to replenish Puerto Rico’s and the United States Virgin Islands’ Medicaid funds, $2 billion to restore the shredded power grid, and $9 billion for housing and urban development projects on the islands.
However, as the Times notes, the appropriation falls far short of what Puerto Rico says it needs to rebuild properly. “In November, Puerto Rico estimated it would need $94.4 billion to rebuild the island after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and make its infrastructure more resilient to future natural disasters,” the Times wrote.
In December, NAHB senior officers Randy Noel and Dean Mon flew to Puerto Rico to get a first-hand look at the devastation and to see how the organization can help Puerto Rican home builders get back to business faster.
“Americans have grown a little disaster weary, particularly those in Congress,” said Noel before Congress passed a new spending bill this month. “Katrina was the first significant event in a long time. Then (Superstorm) Sandy, then (hurricanes) Maria, Harvey, Irma. So now Congress is trying to figure out how to divvy up the money. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico is probably on the short end of that stick. And of the areas they probably need the money the worst.”
According to Noel, who is from Louisiana and lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the capital city of San Juan was in decent shape during his trip, although the streetlights didn’t work. But when the NAHB congregation took a trip to nearby Toa Baja, which got about 11 feet of floodwaters, the devastation was clear.
What struck Noel was how every structure built out of wood was ruined, while the structures built out of concrete were standing, though most suffered roof and window damage. To withstand future storms, it’d be best to rebuild those structures and roofs out of concrete, which complicates the things, Noel says. “To build roofs out of concrete would be best but you don’t do that quickly,” the NAHB chairman says. “Pouring concrete roofs is a very slow process, it’s also very expensive.
“The challenge is because they’re building out of concrete you have to make it on the island,” he adds. “If it was wood you could put together the modular and ship them over there and stand them up. But because of the size of the storm and how storms hit Puerto Rico, they’d be temporary shelters at best.”
Noel says the NAHB is part of a group that’s working to get roofs that could sustain hurricane-force winds on the homes still standing. “If we can get some sort of roofing on the bulk on the housing we can get a lot of people back pretty quick,” he says.
The NAHB Senior Officers have appointed Mon to oversee the association’s initiatives in Puerto Rico. Here's an excerpt from an NAHB Now post highlighting Mon's thoughts on the rebuild:
The island’s infrastructure, especially electrical and transportation systems, was already in disrepair before the hurricane struck, corruption continues to be an issue, and many businesses are still recovering from the Great Recession. In addition, most rural jurisdictions can’t afford the building inspectors and code specialists that can ensure that the replacement homes and businesses are built to modern codes — and not subject to more damage with the next storm.
“There is no magic answer, but what we can do is stay in contact with the HBA, see if we can help with introductions with HUD and other agencies, and help them encourage the local government to use their resources correctly,” Mon said.
As a Louisianan, Noel often thinks back to the aftermath of Katrina and says the state learned valuable lessons over the weeks, months, and years following the storm. “In Louisiana, right after Katrina we adopted a statewide uniform building code that was enforced with certified inspectors,” he says. “Then [Hurricane] Gustav and [Hurricane] Ike (both in 2008) came through and we fared 1,000 percent better than the housing before. ... Florida did great in the hurricane they caught because they built to the current building codes. Puerto Rico’s building codes will have you building out of concrete because of the wind speed requirements. The (structures) that didn’t fare too well in Puerto Rico were the ones that were not built to code; that didn’t have the particular strapping that they needed on the roofs. The rebuild will be built to current code.”
Noel predicts it will take Puerto Rico years to recover, much like Louisiana after Katrina. But still, after touring the island and meeting stakeholders, he’s optimistic about its future. “I think the Puerto Rican people will recover because they’re hardworking,” he says. “They just need a little jumpstart.
“A lot of the island wasn’t maintained well,” he adds. “If they rebuild, they’ll rebuild it in a method that will withstand another one.”
This story was originally published by Builder.