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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Most buildings affected by the 2020 earthquakes were out of code and a structural hazard

Alejandra M. Jover Tovar

When a 6.4 earthquake hit the south of Puerto Rico on January 7, 2020, it was felt across the Island and mainly impacted 33 municipalities in the south, west, and center of our archipelago. Many structures suffered damage and collapsed, highlighting the need to keep constructions up to code and retrofit old systems to keep up with current necessities.

With this in mind, Puerto Rico Manufacturing Extension, Inc. (PRiMEX) studied how those buildings damaged by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks stood the test of modern engineering and how they would fare if another event of that magnitude occurred.

The study centered on the informality of constructions in the small and medium-sized manufacturing industries, and the findings were telling. Of 221 buildings the investigators evaluated being used as manufacturing facilities, 47% were constructed between building codes (between 1967 and 1987.)

“Of those, 88% wouldn’t get an acceptable seismic evaluation rating and needed a detailed analysis to determine its seismic capability,” said structural engineer Carla Maldonado. “And about the ones up to code, around 16%, were at risk of sliding, with significative structural problems or had a structure beside it that could collapse on top of it,” she pointed out.

The problem is not only the buildings per se but how they are utilized. According to the study, most have hazardous materials piled on top of the other or near flammable content; the exits are blocked, signage is wrong, and, construction-wise, they don’t follow safety procedures: most factories are constructed with mixed materials and skirt the building codes, according to engineers Jenniffer Márques and Víctor Cancel, part of the PRiMEX team.

In a second study, presented by Dr. Alizabeth Sánchez López, a researcher in entrepreneurship, innovation, and resilience, she determined the impact of earthquakes on the supply chain and its employees in the manufacturing industry. The study is ongoing since the south of the Island is still experiencing tremors.

“Instead of just focusing on the economic impact, we wanted to look at how different components in the supply chain were impacted,” said Dr. Sánchez López. “We also focused on the components of the supply chain that would help us predict what factors would make one company more resilient than another.”

Using models from other countries, such as New Zealand, Chile, and the state of Arizona in the US, they tracked how companies and their employees behaved after an earthquake and how fast they could go about business as usual.

“We did an inventory of initiatives that had been verified in resilience: social, economic, infrastructural, and environmental. The study consisted of a sample of the municipalities that had been affected. At the time of this study, the pandemic had already begun. Comparing the groups allows us to see the specific impact,” the expert said.

The numbers indicate that 73% of the companies reported having had supply chain disruptions, some over $10,000. Of those, 45% said earthquakes had structurally impacted them, and 52% of companies experienced a shutdown. “In supply chain components, we see that the most affected were those related to suppliers, transportation and logistics methods, and infrastructure.”

Most telling was the indirect impact of the earthquakes. “During the period, looking at the indirect impact, through the employees, 80% of the companies encountered problems of absenteeism or personnel retention. Between 43% and 51% had to do with absenteeism and retention, and 12% had problems due to the emotional effect of the earthquakes. Let’s remember that some people lost their homes and were even sleeping on the streets for fears of another quake,” Dr. Sánchez López said. “The earthquake did not warn and caused employees emotional problems.”

What factors distinguish them from areas not impacted by earthquakes: companies affected by earthquakes differ from others regarding employees, infrastructure, and facilities. “In general terms, what it suggests is that when an earthquake occurs, it is going to be in those three factors: employee retention and mental health; damages to infrastructure, and that people felt that their buildings were not safe,” the expert said.

“If I want to work on improving the ability of companies to prepare for an earthquake, I have to focus on people, infrastructure, and facilities. This is what the research suggests,” she said, mentioning that facilities have to follow construction codes that account for earthquakes (such as in the case of Chile,) identify potential hazards, facilitate access to alternate power and water sources, as much as locations, and improve the efficiency of public assistance programs to help employees in need.

The workshop was attended by engineers Félix Rivera and José Izquierdo Encarnación, who have many years of experience in the construction industry. They reacted to the presentations and discussed the need for proactive action to improve resilience in this crucial sector.

“By their nature, earthquakes are unpredictable and unexpected. We must shift to a more proactive approach to reduce an earthquake’s potential human and economic impact. Earthquakes are a fact of life. We must prepare and anticipate how it affects our workforce, not only in their concern for the structures in which they work but also in their concerns for the safety and well-being of their families in their homes,” highlighted PRiMEX Executive Director Dr. Ramón Vega Alejandro.

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