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NIST Reports Progress in Learning from Hurricane Maria’s Impacts on Puerto Rico

HM Progress Report Cover

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a report summarizing progress in its multi-year study of the impacts of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico. In this effort, launched in 2018, NIST seeks to understand:

  • the hurricane’s wind environment and the conditions that led to injuries and deaths;
  • how critical buildings and designated safe areas within them performed—including their dependence on electricity, water, transportation, and other infrastructure;
  • how emergency communications systems performed and the public’s response to such communications;
  • and the impacts to, and recovery of, selected businesses, hospitals and schools, as well as the critical social functions they provide.

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with devastating impact on September 20, 2017, damaging buildings that its communities relied upon for medical care, safety, communications, education, business, and more. In issuing this report, Joe Main, NIST’s lead technical investigator for the program, said, “Ultimately, the goal of this effort is to learn from the failures that occurred and to recommend improvements to building codes, standards and practices that would make communities more resilient to hurricanes and other hazards in the future, not only in Puerto Rico, but across the United States.” 

This progress report, Learning from Hurricane Maria's Impacts on Puerto RicoAprendiendo del impacto del huracán María en Puerto Rico, explains in detail the rationale for launching this effort, the specific regions of focus selected by the interdisciplinary Team, and the approach that NIST is using, which includes building upon information gathered by others, but also conducting extensive original data collection and analyses. The report also summarizes progress to date. The report is available in both English and Spanish.

To get the most complete and accurate information possible, NIST is coordinating this undertaking with other organizations, including Puerto Rico government agencies, federal agencies, companies and business associations, hospitals, schools, and public utilities. Multiple contractors, including experts based in Puerto Rico, are supporting and adding substantial capacity to the NIST Team of engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, meteorologists, epidemiologists, and other experts. In addition to NIST employees, formal Team members include outside experts from the National Weather Service, the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Projects are being conducted under two federal statutes: the National Construction Safety Team Act and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act.

Highlights of progress-to-date include:

  • Information Requested and Obtained from Other Agencies and Organizations: To get the most accurate information possible and coordinate with other organizations, NIST has requested and received information from Puerto Rico government agencies, federal agencies, companies and business associations, hospitals, schools, and public utilities. This includes information about damage to schools and hospitals, operation of shelters, impacts to the transportation system, and disruptions to business and supply chains.
  • Wind-Field Model Development, Wind Tunnel Testing, and Field Measurements: Accurate quantification of wind speeds is critical in evaluating the performance of buildings and infrastructure and to provide context for other aspects of the program, and it is challenging because of the limited measurements available and the influence of Puerto Rico’s mountainous topography, which can cause significant local speed-up of winds. To address these challenges, an initial wind-field model has been developed for Hurricane Maria that provides time-varying estimates of wind speed and direction across the entire commonwealth. Topographic effects in some locations resulted in wind speeds estimated to be as much as 1.8 times higher than would otherwise be expected. Further, more detailed evaluation of topographic effects on winds is currently underway, which will inform the development of a final wind-field model for Hurricane Maria. This includes wind tunnel testing of scale models of topographic features in selected regions of Puerto Rico in conjunction with computational modeling. In addition, anemometers have been deployed on three cell towers in the Yabucoa region, at sites where the surrounding topography produces significant increases in wind speeds, to provide real-world data for evaluation of topographic effects and for validation of wind tunnel and computational models. Contracts with Applied Research Associates, Inc., and the University of Florida are supporting this work.
  • Evaluation of Critical Buildings: Evaluating the performance of critical buildings requires documenting the characteristics of the buildings and their initial design requirements, as well as the damages and loss of function as a result of the hurricane. Support in collecting such information for selected hospitals, schools, and storm shelters is being provided through a contract to Stantec, Inc. Specific facilities have been selected for evaluation, and collection and review of relevant documentation is underway, to be followed by interviews with facility managers. For one hospital in Mayagüez subjected to particularly significant topographic speed-up of winds, drone photographs are being used to create a 3D model of the facility for wind-tunnel testing. 
  • Characterization of Morbidity and Mortality: Identifying deaths directly and indirectly tied to Hurricane Maria, especially those associated with building failures, requires understanding specific causes of death. To support the collection of such information, a contract was awarded in September 2020 to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, with collaborating team members at the University of Puerto Rico-Graduate School of Public Health and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. This effort will identify deaths attributed to building or building system failures; it will not produce another count of Hurricane Maria related deaths.
  • Sample Design for Surveys and Interviews: Social science methodologies, including surveying and interviewing, are essential to four NIST Hurricane Maria projects, including one focused on public response to emergency communications and three exploring aspects of recovery, including business and supply chains, social functions, and infrastructure systems. These projects require collection of information from individuals, households, businesses, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure organizations in the power, water, and transportation sectors. Sample designs have been developed for surveys and interviews, and administrative reviews for information collection are being completed. This work is supported by a contract to the Horsley Witten Group, Inc., and by subcontractors Eastern Research Group, Inc., Issues & Answers, Inc., and Albizu University in Puerto Rico.
  • Data Collection on Recovery of Business and Supply Chains: The Recovery of Business and Supply Chains project team collaborated with the Puerto Rico Manufacturing Extension, Inc., (PRiMEX) and the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) in site visits in the summer of 2019 to collect data on the recovery of key businesses within the Food Preparation Manufacturing and the Medical Device Manufacturing sectors. Data on initial recovery of small- and medium-sized enterprises, collected from field observations and other sources, have been compiled to support future analyses.

“Our extensive data collection effort includes a variety of social science and engineering methods and is greatly enhanced by the expertise of local contractor teams in Puerto Rico,” said Maria Dillard, the associate lead technical investigator. Following the completion of data collection and analysis, NIST will prepare findings and recommendations for public review and comment. NIST will provide regular updates of progress through the Hurricane Maria program website and presentations to the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Advisory Committee, which is chartered to provide feedback on the NCST investigation. NIST will widely disseminate the findings and recommendations resulting from this effort in publicly issued draft and final reports.

In addition to taking action on any recommendations within NIST’s purview for follow-up research or other activities, NIST will reach out to all relevant federal agencies as well as the Puerto Rico government and others in the public and private sectors to encourage leadership in supporting voluntary implementation of recommendations from the NCST investigation. As with its previous investigations, NIST will track and provide public annual reports on progress that it and others are making to implement the NCST recommendations.

Released January 22, 2021, Updated October 12, 2023