FEMA earmarks $7.4 million for repair of historic San Juan structures

By John McPhaul

Almost four years after Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Wednesday “an award of $7.4 million” to repair emblematic structures, such as the Palacio de Santa Catalina, known as La Fortaleza, La Casa del Libro museum and library and several historical cemeteries in San Juan.

The goal is for the facilities to return to the state they were in before Hurricane Maria. In addition, the funds combine about $678,000 for mitigation measures that will increase the resilience of structures against future disasters, FEMA announced Wednesday in a written communication.

“Due to the great architectural and cultural value of these protected landmarks, all repairs must comply with federal and local regulations for historic preservation,” said José G. Baquero, FEMA federal disaster recovery coordinator for Puerto Rico. “This will guarantee that many future generations can also enjoy these spaces.”

More than $2.8 million was earmarked for the work at La Fortaleza, which includes the replacement of wooden floors and beams, the roof and its waterproofing system, brick walls, and the historic windows and door shutters. Mitigation measures in the structure, designated as a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site, will include the reinforcement of the sewer pipes and the installation of more resistant wooden doors and windows.

Architect Carlos Rubio Cancela, the executive director of the State Historic Conservation Office, said FEMA has become an important ally of his office in the effort to recover and rehabilitate historic buildings damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“It is very important that the obligation of these projects occurs within the commemorative period of the 500 years of the founding of the city of San Juan,” Rubio Cancela said. “That is why this contribution from FEMA and the obligation of these projects are of monumental importance, because it is our responsibility that this city, which reaches its 500 years with the beauty that we all admire, continues like this for the next 500 years.”

The four historic cemeteries to be repaired with $2.7 million are: the Capital Cemetery, built in 1954 with five mausoleums and a chapel; the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, built in 1863 with multiple mausoleums and located between El Morro and the coast; the Villa Nevárez Cemetery, built in 1930 as a public cemetery with concrete family crypts; and the Villa Palmeras Cemetery, built in 1920 on 10 acres of land with a chapel and family mausoleum.

The municipal cemeteries are located in areas considered critical habitats for endangered species, such as certain turtles, manatees and the Puerto Rican boa. The work to be carried out in the cemeteries will include the removal and replacement of the Victorian luminaires of the lanterns and the windows with wooden lattices, among other projects.

Meanwhile, $1.8 million went to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to repair La Casa del Libro, which houses an important collection of old books, more than 300 published in the 15th century, and documents dating from 1493.

La Casa del Libro is located in the Historic District of Old San Juan, and is also designated as a National Historic Monument and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

“The repair of these historic buildings supports the resilience of the tourism sector,” said Manuel Laboy Rivera, executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3). “Local and foreign tourists will have the opportunity to enjoy these centers of great cultural value safely. Our team is committed to offering assistance in matters related to the recovery processes in these areas.”

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