When Erica Kuligowski went to Puerto Rico three months after Hurricane Maria battered the island, she noticed conditions that others seemed to overlook.
Vital buildings such as hospitals and schools were still standing but unusable because rain had penetrated and swamped the interiors.
The water damage might have seemed unremarkable in a moonscape of destruction and power outages. But Kuligowski works for a federal agency that studies buildings.
Now, the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology is undertaking a rare, comprehensive investigation into why Hurricane Maria ruined so many essential buildings in September 2017 and why systems such as emergency communications failed.
The broad inquiry is only the fourth that NIST has undertaken since Congress expanded the agency’s investigative powers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its first investigation was into the collapse of New York City’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The latest probe will answer some of the most crucial questions about why Puerto Rico suffered so much—and will guide the nation on how to avoid similar devastation. Investigators also will probe the death toll, which remains uncertain and disputed.
“Our goal really is that we want to be able to identify findings that will lead to improvements,” said Kuligowski, who is leading the NIST investigative team.
The 17-member Hurricane Maria Team aims to revise international codes to incorporate new standards that make critical structures more resilient against the type of 140-mph winds that swept across Puerto Rico during Maria. Nonprofits such as the International Code Council and National Fire Protection Association publish and update model building and safety codes that jurisdictions often adopt as their own.
“The whole goal here is to save lives and prevent damage in future disasters,” Kuligowski said. Her group, though, is not looking at the many homes that were extensively damaged by Hurricane Maria and were constructed without building permits.
The NIST investigation comes as private groups and government agencies increasingly focus on resilience—for buildings, infrastructure and services—to cope with climate change and the growing intensity of weather-related disasters such as hurricanes. In January, the National Institute of Building Sciences, a congressionally mandated research group, released astudyshowing that states and municipalities can save extensive money, property and lives by adopting the latest model building codes.
Last Thursday, two former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrators wrote acolumninThe Hillsaying that Congress should require that any construction done through a massive new infrastructure package should follow modern codes.
The failures of buildings and emergency communications on Puerto Rico have been overlooked as other investigations have focused on the extensive power loss and FEMA’s struggle to assist the U.S. territory’s 3.2 million residents.
In a preliminaryreport, NIST’s Hurricane Maria Team found that buildings such as hospitals and schools had “good structural performance” but “suffered extensive nonstructural damage and loss of function." The buildings were deluged with rain because roofs, doors and windows were destroyed or damaged, while wind-driven rain penetrated undamaged doors and windows, the report found.
“If a critical building loses its ability to function due to rainwater penetration, you’re not able to provide services” such as health care and education, Kuligowski said.
The preliminary report also found extended breakdowns in emergency communication with the public as conditions deteriorated.
“The public wasn’t receiving information because a lot of the [communications] channels were lost due to power and other issues. Just a few radio stations were operating,” Kuligowski said. “When people needed to understand what’s going on, where recovery supplies are located—a lot of that was difficult to communicate.”
In addition to investigating failures of public buildings and emergency communications, the NIST team will examine hurricane-related deaths to determine how many were caused by windstorms and by failures of buildings and infrastructure. Death counts have varied wildly, ranging from an initial count of 64 to astudyone year ago by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health projecting as many as 8,498 deaths.
The team also will study hindrances to the resumption of businesses, supply chains and social functions. The investigation began in February 2018 and will take several years as the team interviews people in Puerto Rico and works with groups that write building and safety codes.
The Maria investigation will be a major test for NIST, a small agency whose mission is to strengthen U.S. industry by setting standards for an endless array of products and services, from computer chips to power grids. A third of the agency’s roughly 3,000 employees have doctoral degrees.
NIST has done dozens of post-disaster studies going back as far as a 1973 apartment building collapse in Virginia that killed 14 construction workers. But after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, Congress determined there were “serious flaws in how the federal government carries out investigations of major building failures” because no agency could conduct a “comprehensive and thorough investigation” immediately after 9/11.
A law enacted in October 2002 authorizes NIST to undertake such investigations, following a model of the National Transportation Safety Board, which conducts exhaustive investigations of transportation incidents such as airplane crashes and recommends safety improvements. Thelawempowers NIST to investigate all aspects of a building failure, including meteorological conditions and emergency response, and gives the agency authority to subpoena witnesses and records.
“Our technical report will be objective, scientific-based fact-finding—not fault-finding—that lays out recommendations to improve building codes, standards and practices,” Kuligowski said.
NIST’s investigation of the World Trade Center yielded 30 recommendations, such as developing standards that prevent “progressive collapse” of a building and that ensure massive fires do not cause buildings to fall down.
NIST’s other two comprehensive investigations were of a fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003 that killed 100 people and of a tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011 that killed 158.
NIST decided to investigate Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico after Kuligowski and three colleagues went to the island in December 2017 and saw building damage from the 140-mph winds as well as from flooding, storm surge and landslides.
“We saw from one event so many conditions that were providing opportunities for NIST to study and recommend ways to improve the resilience of communities to windstorm events across the United States,” Kuligowski said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.