On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico, damaging buildings that its communities relied on for medical care, safety, communications and more. To better understand how the buildings and infrastructure failed, and how we can prevent such failures in the future, in 2018 NIST launched a multi-year effort to study how critical buildings performed during the storm, as well as how emergency communications systems worked.
The goal of this effort is to make recommendations to improve building codes, standards and practices to make communities across the U.S. more resilient to hurricanes and other disasters. NIST has a long history of studying disasters so that we can learn from them and improve our buildings or procedures. For example, after the World Trade Center disaster, NIST’s recommendations led to changes in how we build buildings and respond to emergencies. Additionally, thanks to NIST’s work studying the effects of tornadoes, building codes and communications practices have been changed to keep people safer.
In Puerto Rico, NIST seeks to understand Hurricane Maria’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.
The NIST team is involving local and regional emergency management officials; building departments, transportation and other public utilities; education and healthcare officials and staff; and local, regional, and Commonwealth elected officials and civil servants as well as individuals. NIST also is coordinating its work with other federal agencies, private sector organizations, and academic institutions. Several contractors are assisting the NIST team’s engineers, sociologists, economists, meteorologists, and other researchers. Because NIST is not a regulatory agency, it does not issue new codes or standards. However, NIST will work with all relevant public and private citizens to encourage voluntary implementation of the recommendations in its final report.