PEÑUELAS, PUERTO RICO — Scores of families flocked to an empty field in this town on the morning of January 7, stunned and frightened after a pre-dawn earthquake shook southern Puerto Rico.
Peñuelas students expected to return to school from winter holidays the following week. But in a scene repeated along the south coast, all seven of the town’s schools suffered damage. Another school in Guánica, 30 kilometers (19 miles) west, collapsed.
Today, following a government order, schools all over the region remain closed, including those in this coastal town of tranquil waterfalls, green mountains and luxuriant trees.
More than 140 schools across the south coast remain unusable, impacting 27,000 students.
Construction experts allege that a failure by government officials to bulwark the schools’ structures against earthquakes caused unnecessary damage and endangered students’ safety. Unless the government enforces its own building codes, the experts say, schools remain vulnerable to similar calamities in the face of future earthquakes.
“The structures are permanent, but they won’t last forever,” says Félix Rivera, head of a commission that is studying the earthquakes for the Professional College of Engineers and Land Surveyors of Puerto Rico. “And that’s a public safety issue.”
Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
Between late December and mid-January, Puerto Rico endured 10 quakes of magnitude 5 or stronger.
The most severe came on January 7, at a 6.4 magnitude. The quake’s epicenter was Guayanilla, a coastal town in the south, and it rocked several nearby cities, including Peñuelas. Electricity was out for days. Landslides ensued. At least one person was killed and dozens were injured.
Some 2,500 homes suffered damage. By early February about 40 shelters opened throughout southern Puerto Rico.
Damage to schools included cracks in walls, crumbling plaster, detached doors and windows, and mangled porches, carports and gazebos.
“Without a doubt, concern and anxiety is running high because this is about the workplaces of our teachers and the shelters of our students,” says Elba Aponte, president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Teachers Association).
One major problem is the “short column effect,” Rivera says.
Short structural columns draw more seismic force than taller ones in an earthquake, leading to collapsed walls and ceilings. At least one school in southern Puerto Rico — the Agripina Seda School, in Guánica — caved in because of this problem.
“That is the problem we’re having with our schools,” Rivera says. “And I have been warning people about this since the 1990s.”
The Puerto Rico Building Code lays out strict standards and practices for design and construction, Rivera says. But no law requires the Puerto Rican government to maintain or periodically remodel these buildings, including schools.
Rivera says that over the last two decades the government repaired or closed more than 1,000 of Puerto Rico’s 1,500 schools. In the early 2000s, the region boasted 1,515 schools; by 2018-19, that number had shrunk to about 850.
Hundreds of remaining schools weren’t fixed and could still fall — especially under the trauma of an earthquake, Rivera says.
Education Secretary Eligio Hernández admits there’s a problem, but won’t confirm Rivera’s figures.
“We cannot assume some arguments are correct because they have not been able to produce the research or the study [the Professional College of Engineers and Land Surveyors of Puerto Rico] conducted,” Hernández says.
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The challenge won’t go away. The United States Geological Survey reports that aftershocks related to the January 7 earthquake will likely continue for at least a decade.
Dozens of aftershocks already have occurred this year, and the ongoing temblors have stalled school repairs.
“We are handling several emergencies simultaneously, so we have to wait for FEMA to finish their inspection process,” says Hernández, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. government’s disaster relief bureaucracy.
By “several emergencies,” Hernández was speaking of both the coronavirus pandemic and Puerto Rico’s ongoing efforts to recover from two hurricanes that struck in late 2017.
Now, he adds, “The difficulty we have is that [the earth] keeps shaking.”
At Jardines de Ponce High School in Ponce, another south coast city, structures suffered cracks, and once-attached buildings pulled away from each other. The short-column effect also did damage, says teacher and union representative José Ernesto Torres.
The school was declared unfit for use.
“It will be a couple of months before they can fix it,” Torres says, referring to when repairs may start.
Hernández says Puerto Rico awaits approval of $63 million in federal funds for school repairs in 14 municipalities identified as emergency zones.
Another $43.8 million in federal aid will pay for portable classrooms at all schools in Guánica, Guayanilla and Peñuelas, he says. The federal government also has committed about $2.3 billion to restore and upgrade Puerto Rico’s schools, many initially hammered in 2017 by Hurricane Maria.
The repairs can’t come quickly enough for Tamara Delgado, whose two children attended the Eduardo Neumann Gandía primary school in Ponce.
Her children have not taken in-person classes since last December. Because of earthquake damage and the pandemic, her kids, like students all over the region, are learning virtually. Even if the coronavirus crisis were to subside, students would remain out of school as buildings await repairs.
Parents receive updates on the coronavirus, Delgado says, but know little about when officials will fix and reopen school buildings.
“We haven’t been told anything,” Delgado says.
For his part, Rivera hopes this year’s earthquakes force the Puerto Rican government to make ongoing maintenance of schools a priority.
“We have to establish stronger measures and improved auditing,” he says. Students “are important. We have to care for them and protect them.”
Coraly Cruz Mejías is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Puerto Rico. She specializes in environmental reporting.
Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.