ASCE Younger Member Reflects on Devastation in Her Puerto Rico Homeland

BY 
September 29, 2017
Flood waters remain high in Carolina, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria slammed the island. PHOTO: Dept. of Defense
Flood waters remain high in Carolina, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria slammed the island. PHOTO: Dept. of Defense

Jennifer M. Aponte Rivera, A.M.ASCE, grew up in Puerto Rico and graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez in 2016. She now lives in northern Virginia and works as a civil engineer for the Federal Highway Administration’s Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division Road Inventory Program.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating landfall on Puerto Rico, she offered the following report about her home and what her family is dealing with.

Transportation infrastructure

Many roads that connect to the rural areas collapsed due to excessive rain lead to flooding.

PR Donate SidebarThe most critical cases could be in the rural/mountain areas of towns like Aibonito, Barranquitas, Utuado, and Jayuya. Due to bridges or road collapses, in areas or towns like Morovis, the only way out of the residential neighborhood is to swim across the river or drive at least three hours around a mountain – a near-impossibility because of the scarcity of gas.

Electricity

Hurricane Maria has damaged Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure in ways that, in a worst-case scenario, could take months to repair. Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Roselló, said that the island’s energy infrastructure is “a little bit old, mishandled and weak,” and towers carrying high-voltage lines may have been toppled by the storm.

Guajataca Dam

In the town of Quebradillas, the Guajataca Dam had damage due to the heavy rains. An alert by the National Weather Service was issued on Sept. 23. Around 70,000 people were under evacuation orders; their homes were in the surrounding areas or downstream from the dam and could receive an impact if the dam failed.

My family’s story

My family lives in the suburbs of the city of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. It’s a city near San Juan. I spoke with my family members the morning of Sept. 20. I was lucky to reach my mom the same afternoon because she’s a nurse and she was working in a refuge in the Convention Center of San Juan.

I got news from my dad the day after by text message – the communication was down. I was still unable to reach friends that live in other parts of the island, especially in the town of Ponce (at the south). After a week, I finally got news from friends from Ponce and Bayamon (a city that is less than 15 miles from my house).

Puerto Rican residents walk in flooded streets in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico. PHOTO: Dept. of Defense

Puerto Rican residents walk in flooded streets in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico. PHOTO: Dept. of Defense

People had to drive from their houses and risk their lives just to be able to make a call and say they were safe. What normally was a two-hour ride now could take easily up to five hours (from San Juan to Mayaguez, a city on the west coast).

After a week, my parents decided to get gas at a station. What typically could take 10 minutes, it now takes almost an entire day. The lines for getting gas are long, and the amount of money to spend on gas is limited. In some of them it is $10 per person or car. The same happens with food – the resources are limited.

In my house, they have water, but due to the lack of electric power, I didn’t recommend them to drink that water. The water plants work with electricity, so there is no certainty that their water passed the quality tests. My brother works at a grocery store, and my mom mentioned me to that he started working again and people are getting limited time to be inside the store to get what they can while they are inside.

Personal note

I didn’t pass this hurricane on the island. But I have faded memories of Hurricane Georges back in 1998, and the damage that hurricane did can’t compare to this one.

This event will definitively impact many lives from different perspectives. As a civil engineer, it made me think about how resilient we need to be with the upcoming challenges of climate change, and the need to adapt our existing codes.

Also, we need to assess and determine how to enhance the “life” of the current structures that we have. We design for an event in 500 years, but this was definitively an event that we didn’t think we would have back in 1929 (when the Guajataca Dam was built).

3 Comments
  • Ms. Rivera,

    My Church, which is an American Baptist Church has 66 churches in Puerto Rico and the denomination is asking if I can help them being that I am a structural licensed engineer. I am pretty willing to do this, but it appears that even before the storm, a license by comity would be next to impossible. Do you know if Puerto Rico has put an emergency measure in place for temporary licensing ? I know that Texas has provided for this by creating temporary and expedited licensing by comity to address their needs.

    Andy

  • Ms. Aponte Rivera,

    Hello, I enjoyed reading your summary report regarding the hurricane in Puerto Rico. I have not been back to the island recently, given I was recently reading the http://www.asce.org/regions_sections_branches/ and I noticed Region 5 included Puerto Rico. Following that, I proceeded to look for the infrastructure report card https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/ and I noticed the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was not listed there. Is that correct or perhaps and oversight? Also, I know the majority of the island is currently without power, therefore in order for me to find out what is going on there I have been following news reports. Is it possible for in the future for the summary reports to include by category : Aviation, Bridges, Energy, Levees, Rail, Solid Waste, Waste Water, Dams, Hazardous, Waste, Parks, Ports, Roads, Storm water, Transit, Drinking Water, Inland Waterways, and School Facilities. I know there is no report card, but I figured that a robust summary/information/report card could be helpful. Again, I am aware that is probably a difficult task as of right now, but I thought it could be a good suggestion going forward, until Puerto achieves statehood. FYI – there is a conference going on The ASCE Convention will begin Monday, Oct. 9, 2017 http://www.asceconvention.org/program. :-) Lastly, here is another fundraiser going on as well: https://www.youcaring.com/peopleofpuertorico-957793. Ricky Martin mentioned this on The Ellen Show yesterday. Other than that, I hope you and your family is well and I am praying for all through the storm and through rebuilding.
    Brandon Cherry

  • Ms. Aponte Rivera,
    Hello, this is a very well drafted summary report on the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. I recently spent ample time in the island working on a project on the East side in the town of Rio Grande. It is painful to learn what was happened. We have several help centers in South Florida providing aid so if there is anything you need please feel free to reach out.

    JB.
    M. ASCE
    Miami-Dade Branch

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