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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

FEMA to retrofit 55 schools for earthquake resistance

Public Buildings Authority Executive Director Ivelysse Lebrón Durán

By John McPhaul

Around 55 public schools in Puerto Rico will be seismically retrofitted following updated building codes thanks to an initial allocation of nearly $35 million to the Public Buildings Administration through the Hazard Mitigation Grants Program (HMGP) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The funds for the first phase of the project will be used to evaluate and determine if the properties are historic, and if they are located in a flood zone, among other considerations. Work will also be done to develop designs, specifications and the corresponding estimate for each facility to carry out the refurbishment work. During the second stage, funds will be allocated to cover the costs of bids, permits and construction

“With these improvements, hundreds of students, teachers and other staff who work in the schools will benefit, and the positive impact will be felt in each community where these learning spaces are located,” said FEMA’s federal disaster recovery coordinator in Puerto Rico, José G. Baquero. “In addition, the fact that many of these schools serve as emergency shelters greatly multiplies the importance of the project and its relevance to the communities.”

The modifications to the 55 schools seek to improve the structures that were not damaged by the 2019 and 2020 earthquakes. Specifically, the HMGP project proposes to evaluate, design and reinforce the buildings to reduce the risks to future seismic events and mitigate loss of life and damage to critical infrastructure.

Most of the 55 schools were designed and built following old construction codes and have structural defects, such as short columns and unreinforced masonry walls. Likewise, the seismic hazard mitigation proposal combines structural reinforcement and shear walls to prevent damage in future earthquakes.

In addition to HMGP program funds for the schools, FEMA’s Public Assistance program appropriated $186 million to the commonwealth Department of Education for 137 permanent work projects at other schools in the southern and western regions of Puerto Rico. Of that amount, $178.3 million was assigned for hazard mitigation measures to address seismic vulnerabilities.

“For the Public Buildings Authority (AEP by its Spanish initials), the obligation for work related to the selection of schools for structural refurbishment design represents a step forward,” said Ivelysse Lebrón Durán, the executive director of the AEP. “We have followed our work schedule to improve the rest of the school buildings and provide the necessary maintenance. We have already worked out plans for the summer period that aim to have our schools ready for the start of classes next August. We’re confident that we can expedite the allocation of more federal funds for more AEP schools.”

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