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Frequently Asked Questions

 1. Why is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) studying the impacts of Hurricane Maria on the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico?

Hurricane Maria represents a unique opportunity to scientifically study and better understand the widespread and long-lasting failures of buildings and infrastructure systems (such as electricity, water and transportation) following a major storm. By carefully documenting, analyzing and evaluating Hurricane Maria’s impacts on the delivery of critical services (such as healthcare, education and commerce) to the residents of Puerto Rico, NIST plans to make recommendations for improving resilience in all communities at risk from hurricanes and other windstorms.

 

2. Why does NIST conduct studies like this?

For nearly half a century, teams of engineers and scientists from NIST have studied the impacts from numerous natural hazard events, including hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and wildfires. Studies performed by NIST, including the ongoing Hurricane Maria program, are strictly fact-finding in nature, with the goal of developing recommendations for improving current building codes, standards and practice. This helps communities across the United States become more resilient to natural hazards, saving both lives and property. NIST has no regulatory authority but works closely with various public and private groups toward implementing positive changes based on the findings from its disaster studies.

 

3. What are the goals of the NIST Hurricane Maria program?

The Hurricane Maria program is designed to scientifically characterize:

  • The wind environment and technical conditions associated with the storm that led to deaths and injuries;
  • The structural and functional performance of a representative sample of buildings and the designated safe areas within those buildings, including their dependence on infrastructure (such as electricity, transportation and water);
  • The performance of emergency communications systems and the public’s response to the alerts and warning messages broadcast by these systems; and
  • The impacts to and recovery of selected businesses, hospitals and schools, along with the critical social functions they provide.

 

4. A NIST team went to Puerto Rico a few months after Hurricane Maria struck the island. What was the nature of this visit and did it lead to the program now under way?

NIST deployed a small team to Puerto Rico in December 2017 to do a first-hand reconnaissance of the effects of Hurricane Maria. Based on their observations, NIST authorized the current Hurricane Maria program. The team documented substantial damage to buildings and infrastructure from high winds and debris, coastal and inland flooding from heavy rainfall, non-structural building damage due to wind-driven rain, storm surge in coastal areas and landslides in mountainous regions. Additionally, they learned about significant communication and emergency management challenges during the storm and in the response and recovery periods.

 

5.How long will it take to complete the Hurricane Maria program?

NIST will conduct the Hurricane Maria program until the stated goals and objectives are achieved. Historically, NIST studies of similar scale and scope have taken three to four years to produce a final technical report and recommendations.

 

6. How much will the Hurricane Maria program cost and how is it being funded?

In fiscal year 2018, NIST allocated slightly more than $5 million to start the Hurricane Maria program. In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, NIST allocated slightly more than $4 million per year to support the program. These funds, along with any additional funding that will be needed, come from the redirection of NIST laboratory allocations.

 

7. Why is NIST looking at emergency communications, evacuation procedures and public response along with the performance of buildings and infrastructure?

NIST recognizes that evacuation planning and emergency communications play a critical role in public response to a major hurricane or windstorm. For example, NIST’s investigation of the May 2011 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, showed that multiple factors, including conflicting or uncertain information early in the warning process, contributed to a delayed or incomplete response by residents in the tornado's path. Based on these findings, NIST made recommendations for improving emergency communications that warn of imminent threat from tornadoes. 

 

8. In the time since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, there have been differing accounts of the numbers of fatalities attributable to the storm. Will NIST be addressing these discrepancies in its program?

NIST will not be attempting another assessment of the total number of fatalities attributable to Hurricane Maria. NIST is primarily interested in deaths and injuries that were linked to the performance of critical buildings and emergency communications systems during and after Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. Protecting human lives is a primary objective for critical buildings and emergency communications systems, and by documenting deaths that were linked to these systems, NIST hopes to learn lessons that will allow lives to be saved in future hurricanes.

To supplement the expertise of the NIST team, an outside member, Dr. Thomas Kirsch, who is the Director of the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health and part of the federal government’s Uniformed Services University, is co-leading this portion of the program.

 

9. How will the findings and recommendations from a study based on an island hazard event be relevant to mainland communities?

The effects of wind, rain and storm surge on buildings and the response of residents to emergency communications are not unique to an island environment. Critical buildings in Puerto Rico were designed and constructed in accordance to the same building codes and standards used in U.S. mainland communities, so findings will be relevant. Also, some buildings in Puerto Rico experienced wind speeds during Hurricane Maria near the design level prescribed in building codes used throughout the United States. So, the findings and recommendations from this study are expected to be broadly applicable.

 

10.How will the findings and recommendations from the Hurricane Maria program be disseminated?

NIST is not a regulatory agency and does not issue codes or standards. However, NIST will publish the findings and recommendations as part of a draft technical report that will be released for public comment. After the comment period has ended, any appropriate changes will be made, and a final report will be issued. NIST will then work with the appropriate partner organizations on implementing its recommendations to improve codes, standards and practices. These partner organizations may include codes and standards developers, other Federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and state and local governments—including building and emergency officials.

 

11. Is NIST working with other federal agencies on this study?

NIST began coordinating with other federal agencies even before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. To maximize its effectiveness, NIST partners with other agencies to share information and resources, where appropriate and permissible, when planning and conducting a disaster study. For example, a NIST staff member served as a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hurricane Maria Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) that evaluated building performance in the Commonwealth. Details about cooperating organizations’ work with NIST on the Hurricane Maria program are available on the website.  NIST remains open to working with any federal agency that can contribute data, expertise, or other support to the program.

 

12. Is NIST working with public and private organizations in Puerto Rico?

Throughout the Hurricane Maria program, NIST will communicate with local, regional and Commonwealth public and private organizations in Puerto Rico, including emergency management agencies; building, transportation and other public utility departments; educational institutions; and government offices. This will facilitate the sharing of information and resources to ensure a successful study. Details about cooperating organizations’ work with NIST on the Hurricane Maria program are available on the website.

 

13. NIST sent researchers on reconnaissance missions in 2017 following two other hurricane events: Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. Why is the agency not conducting studies on the impacts from those storms?

Upon reviewing the data from the reconnaissance missions to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, NIST determined that the Hurricane Maria event provided several impact characteristics not seen after the other two storms. These included: sustained wind speeds of greater than 225 kilometers per hour (140 miles per hour) across a broad geographic region; damage from multiple hazards in the same event, such as wind, flooding and landslides; severe losses of critical services with damage to hospitals, schools and businesses; and a prolonged recovery period.

Observations made and data collected during the Hurricane Harvey and Irma reconnaissance missions will be used to increase NIST’s overall understanding of hurricane impacts. A NIST staff member also served as a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hurricane Harvey Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) that evaluated building performance in Texas.

 

14. Under what authorities is NIST conducting the Hurricane Maria program?

NIST is conducting the Hurricane Maria program under two authorities granted to it by the U.S. Congress. One is the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act of 2002 that authorizes NIST to establish teams to investigate building failures where there is a significant loss of life or potential for such. The other comes from NIST’s authority as lead of the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP), a multiagency federal effort to reduce loss of life and property from windstorms.

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Created December 7, 2018, Updated March 4, 2020