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FEMA allocates $35M to retrofit public schools to resist earthquakes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated a total of $150 million — of which it is obligating nearly $35 million in a first phase — to modify the structures of some 55 public schools to make them more earthquake-resistant and meet updated building codes.

The “seismic retrofit” — defined as “the modification of existing structures to make them more resistant to seismic activity, ground motion, or soil failure due to earthquakes” — seeks to improve those structures that were not damaged by the 2019 and 2020 earthquakes.

FEMA confirmed that the initial obligation has been allocated to the Puerto Rico Public Buildings Administration through its Hazard Mitigation Grants Program (HMGP).

Specifically, the HMGP project proposes to evaluate, design, and reinforce those buildings to reduce the risks to future seismic events and mitigate loss of life and damage to critical infrastructure.

The funds for the first phase of the project will be used to evaluate and determine if the properties are historic, if they are 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 auctions, permits and construction.

The total estimate for the two phases of the project hovers at around $150 million, the federal agency noted.

“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. 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,” said FEMA’s Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José G. Baquero.

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 these schools, FEMA’s Public Assistance program obligated approximately $186 million to the Puerto Rico 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 were assigned for hazard mitigation measures to address seismic vulnerabilities.

“For the Public Buildings Authority, the obligation for work related to the selection of schools for structural refurbishment design represents a step forward,” said the agency’s Executive Director Ivelysse Lebrón-Durán.

“We’ve followed our work schedule to improve the rest of the school buildings and provide the necessary maintenance. We’ve already worked out plans for the summer period that aim to have our schools ready for the start of classes in August. We’re confident that we can expedite the allocation of more federal funds for more schools,” she said.”

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos-Parés, said “this obligation of FEMA funds contributes to the work that, from our Infrastructure Office, and together with the Public Buildings Authority, we’ve been developing to improve the school buildings. We will serve as facilitators for everything that allows us to expedite the processes.”

The seismic retrofitting project is a “priority project” for the government, said Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3) Executive Director Manuel Laboy.

“Because of this, we at COR3 dived into the technical process along with Public Building Authority staff and the specialized assistance of FEMA contractors from Region 2 with experience in seismic projects to expedite the feasibility of this work,” he said.

“COR3’s HMGP team advised the PBA to make this project cost efficient, considering the variables of years of construction and structural evaluations of the sites. As a result of our hard work together, school communities will soon have safe and resilient structures to potentially catastrophic events,” said Laboy.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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