Puerto Rico’s Disasters After the Earthquakes
Puerto Rico has been repeatedly battered with hurricanes and, most recently, massive earthquakes. The disasters have been worsened by the government’s lack of response to the earthquake’s devastation — especially on the island’s schools.
Schools are starting to reopen after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked Puerto Rico in the early morning hours of January 7, the day after Three Kings’ Day. Entire neighborhoods of cement structures shifted and crumbled, leaving thousands of people homeless and many more living in precarious situations. Similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the earthquakes and aftershocks in Puerto Rico are revealing the decidedly unnatural tragedies of disaster capitalism and colonialism.
And now there’s a new wave of struggle on the island calling for the resignation of government officials who have failed — yet again — to meet the needs of people who lost everything in a natural disaster. People took to the streets starting in mid-January to call for the resignation of Governor Wanda Vásquez Garced and the President of the Senate Thomas Rivera Schatz after supplies meant for victims of Hurricane Maria were found collecting dust in several warehouses.
As a part of this public outcry and call for accountability, parents and educators are denouncing the Department of Education’s (DOE) rushed inspection process that doesn’t fully certify the safety of schools. The Frente Amplio en Defensa de la Educación Pública (FADEP), a coalition of educator unions, community groups, and parent associations, is demanding that the government take the safety of school communities more seriously. Mercedes Martínez Padilla, president of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR) explains:
The authorities must understand that what we are talking about here are the lives of our students, teachers, and school personnel. Any excuse to avoid a transparent process that reflects the real state of the schools and seeks to protect the school community will constitute an act of criminal negligence . . . We simply will not let the experience of Hurricane Maria, in which so many people suffered and died unnecessarily, happen again.
As educators and students plan to go back to school, they are haunted by the images of the Agripina Seda School, which collapsed while students were on break for the holidays. The turquoise and cream-colored, three-story building, which is located in the southern part of the island most affected by the tremors, fell like a deck of cards, each story flattening the one under it.
According to the College of Engineers and Surveyors, the Agripina Seda School collapsed due to a cost-saving construction shortcut called a “short column” which buckles instead of bending in the case of an earthquake. Hundreds of other Puerto Rican schools have this defect and could collapse as a result of another strong earthquake.
“Our recommendation is that these structures shouldn’t be used . . . If this defect hasn’t been fixed yet, the structures simply shouldn’t be used under any circumstances,” Juan F. Alicea, the president of the College of Engineers and Surveyors, told Primera Hora. According to Alicea, these repairs are straightforward and can be done within six to eight weeks with the required resources.
Unfortunately, the DOE has a different plan in mind. They are paying $1,200 per school for subcontractors to conduct walk-through inspections that assess visible signs of structural damage from past earthquakes. Despite the fact that earthquakes are ongoing, and that Secretary of Education Eligio Hernández Pérez admitted in a radio interview that 95 percent of schools are not earthquake-resistant, these inspections do not look for design flaws that make the buildings vulnerable to future earthquakes.
Incredibly, the now-collapsed Agripina Seda School passed this kind of inspection the day before it collapsed. An engineer from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, José A. Martínez-Cruzado, visited the school between earthquakes, when it was still standing. In his own unofficial inspection, he identified the school’s short-column design and recommended that the school be repaired before being used again. Martínez-Cruzado explained to Metro PR how a building could pass a DOE inspection one day but fall to the ground the next:
You can inspect a structure and see if it is cracked or not, but that does not mean that in the future it can necessarily withstand a larger earthquake. If there aren’t any cracks, it means that the previous earthquake didn’t cause damage, but [based on that kind of inspection] I cannot guarantee that it can resist a bigger or future earthquake.
As educators returned to school to get ready for classes, many of them were presented with building certifications from the DOE that left many more questions open than were answered. Martínez Padilla, who has been collecting reports from schools all over the island, explained, “These certifications are a disaster, a completely botched job. There isn’t even a format that the engineers are supposed to follow. The engineers just write what they want to write, some of them are blank, some are more specific, others more general. How is this possible?”
Members of the FADEP aren’t waiting around for the DOE to do the right thing. “All faculty and personnel need at least five days of preparation and training in order to get up to speed with the new reality in schools and in order to establish and roll out protocol for the case of another emergency,” explained the president of the National Union of Educators and Education Workers (UNETE), Liza Fournier Córdova, who is also an elementary school English teacher.
This must include: first aid training; emotional support services for staff; emergency and earthquake management workshops; discussions of the specific emergency protocols in each school with their unique circumstances; a reevaluation and reworking of school structures in order to create smaller class sizes that are more manageable in the case of an emergency; a familiarization with evacuation routes and meet-up points at each campus; as well as a discussion of the walk-through inspections that were done.
Between 2017 and 2018 the DOE under twice-indicted ex–secretary of education Julia Keleher spent millions of dollars on school inspections. But the DOE is unable to provide any kind of comprehensive description of the findings of these inspections or of earlier repairs which were carried out in the early 2000s.
Keleher, who is charged with corruption, bribery, and fraud, is now under investigation for giving away school land in San Juan to a developer in exchange for an apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood that she lived in for six months for $1 a month before buying it below market value.
Keleher also closed hundreds of structurally sound schools while cramming children into inferior, overcrowded facilities. The Luis Muñoz Rivera School in Dorado is still shuttered despite having been the only tsunami-ready structure in its coastal neighborhood. The FMPR, along with community groups, is demanding that the school and others like it be reevaluated and, if it is confirmed to be earthquake-resistant, reopened immediately.
The FADEP has requested meetings with representatives of the House and the Senate, the secretary of education, as well as Carlos Pesquera, the engineer who advises the governor, in order to present and discuss their concerns. To date, they have received no response despite the in-depth proposals that they crafted with engineers and experts in the field.
The inspections and repairs that the FADEP is calling for may take longer and cost more money. But in Puerto Rico, where there is a severe economic crisis, high unemployment, low wages, and a very high cost of living, there is also a fight underway over where the vast resources of society should be spent.
Since the imposition of the PROMESA act under President Obama, Puerto Rico has been pressured to prioritize paying the debt over investment in public services. This has had a devastating impact on many sectors including health, communication, electrical, as well as education. The attacks on working people have also created a backlash and a resurgence of struggle which hold the promise of a different future for Puerto Rico, one in which the needs of ordinary people are prioritized over profits.
“The problem is a lack of transparency, not a lack of funds,” twelfth-grade physics teacher Hugo J Delgado-Martí told me. “As we saw with the ex–secretary of education Julia Keleher and the government of Ricardo Rosselló, the money was always there for the subcontractors, the privatization schemes, and the buying and selling of political favors. We have seen [in this most recent government scandal] that the government could spend $10,000 a month to warehouse supplies which were supposed to be distributed after Hurricane Maria. There’s an unlimited budget for repression, but when it comes to financing our schools they claim bankruptcy.”
“We can’t be trembling with fear and anguish every time the earth shakes out of fear that our children’s school might collapse,” science teacher Anés Cedeño Soto told me. “This is about prioritizing the lives of the people, of our children. The life of any Puerto Rican child is worth more than any amount of money in the world.”