Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and damaged more than 250,000 homes.
Getty Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and damaged more than 250,000 homes.

Winston Figueroa and his family had eaten nothing but hot dogs and bread for a week. The home he shared with his wife, Debruska Hurtado, and their two children, Christall, 24, and Sebastian, 15, was pitch black. But he couldn’t change that now if he tried. A man of faith, Winston lay awake that night last fall and asked God for guidance.

“What am I supposed to do now?”

Before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, Winston and his family had lived a fairly normal life in Bayamón, not far from San Juan. He was a welder by trade but, due to a spinal cord injury, was forced to switch professions less than a year before. He owned and operated a food truck in the area that, he says, served the biggest hamburger you could buy for $5.

But now things had changed. For more than a day, the Category 4 storm had unleashed winds and floods the island’s residents had never seen. With no electricity or running water, and with no idea how long it would take for the utilities to be restored, Winston knew he and his family would have to make a decision: Leave their friends, their livelihoods, and the only home their children had ever known and move to the mainland United States, or hunker down in Bayamón with hopes that life would return to normal soon.

In mid-October, the decision was made. The Figueroa family arrived in New York City and was placed in a shelter.

Puerto Rico Building
The exact numbers from Maria’s damage weren’t yet known as multifamily executive went to print, but Emilio Colón Zavala, president of the Puerto Rico Builders Association, says the devastating storm damaged 250,000 housing units, including 35,000 that were destroyed.

In the hours and days after Maria battered Puerto Rico, Michael Costa, president and CEO of Gardena, Calif.–based Highridge Costa Housing Partners (HCHP), and his team tried to get in touch with someone at one of the company’s three properties on the island. “[After Hurricane Maria hit], we were obviously worried,” he says. “We literally couldn’t get one ounce of information for about three weeks. The first info we got was from people going online and searching for overhead satellite and drone shots.”

A full 98% of the homes FEMA assessed after Maria that were built to any code sustained little to no damage.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

Thanks to those aerial images, Costa could tell that HCHP’s properties had held up well structurally in the storm.

When HCHP built the properties in the mid-2000s, it did so with major hurricanes in mind. “We built what we thought could be the most sturdy project we could,” Costa says. “We literally built two-story, solid-concrete, poured-in-place walls and solid-concrete, poured-in-place roof systems—literally like a giant concrete box.”

The communities, which each offer 120 units of affordable senior housing and are located in rural areas, don’t have windows. As Costa explains, HCHP installed shutters instead because of the potential for high winds and because many residents were already accustomed to shutters. “We built that shell in a manner that, no matter how high those winds got, we were just basically not going to have any damage,” he adds.

When Maria hit, affordable housing developer McCormack Baron Salazar (MBS) was building two apartment communities in Puerto Rico and was about to close on a third. The St. Louis–based firm was selected by HUD and the Puerto Rico Department of Housing to build about 560 mixed-income units on the island.

None of the construction sites were heavily damaged during the storm, MBS president Vince Bennett says, noting that the “buildings were designed to withstand a direct hit by a Category 4 storm” through the use of hurricane-rated doors, windows, roofs, and structures. The first community in Hato Rey, Renaissance Square, is made up of 140 units and was completed in February.

But thousands of structures on the island, like the ones the Figueroas’ neighbors were living in, didn’t fare as well.

On a trip to the island in December, Randy Noel, who is serving as this year’s chairman of the board for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), was particularly struck by what he saw in the community of Toa Baja, which sustained 11 feet of floodwaters during Maria. Every structure built of wood was ruined, he noticed, while the structures built of concrete were standing, though most had suffered roof and window damage.

Puerto Rico has adopted some of the toughest building codes in the U.S., but its housing stock was still vulnerable when Maria swept ashore. According to Zavala, 55% of the island’s housing stock was built “informally,” meaning without the proper permits and not to the island’s building code, which stipulates that structures must be able to withstand wind speeds of at least 145 mph.

“What we’ve seen in terms of damages since the hurricane is that homes that were built according to the existing building code were significantly less damaged than the ones that were built noncompliant to code,” Zavala says, citing a stat from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that says 98% of the homes it assessed after Maria that were built to any code sustained little to no damage.

Fifty-five percent of Puerto Rico’s housing stock was built 'informally,' meaning without the proper permits and not to code.

Source: Puerto Rico Builders Association

Gary Ehrlich, senior program manager of structural codes and standards at the NAHB, says that since 2000, when the first editions of the International Building Code and International Residential Code were published, structures built to more modern codes have fared much better than those “built to some legacy codes or not constructed to a building code at all.” (Click here for expert tips on how to minimize storm damage to your properties.)

In the U.S., roughly 60% of communities have a building code in place, Ehrlich says, and the ones that don’t are typically in rural areas that lack the resources to enforce one.

Tough Choices
In Bayamón, the Figueroas rode out the storm inside their concrete-roof home and made out fine. But many of their neighbors who lived in less-sturdy homes suffered major property loss.

In the days following Maria, using their food-truck supplies, the Figueroas cooked hot dogs on a propane grill and prepared food for neighbors in need. Winston collected rainwater to bathe his father, who lived with the family and suffers from Alzheimer’s, and waited in hours-long supermarket lines only to find when he got to the front that there was no food left. It was a tough decision, Winston told Multifamily Executive in February, but it was the right move for his family to head to New York.

Since the storm, thousands of Puerto Ricans have made similar decisions, and thousands more will do the same in the coming months and years. “It’s really hard when you have everything and then you have nothing,” Winston says.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies, based at New York’s Hunter College, estimates that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents, or 14% of the population, from 2017 to 2019. Jennifer Hinojosa, research associate and data center coordinator for the organization, estimates that between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents will leave the island annually in Maria’s aftermath.

“When it comes to rebuilding Puerto Rico—literally rebuilding Puerto Rico—the depopulation is going to have a major effect at all social [and] economic levels,” Hinojosa says. “If a majority of the school-age children leave Puerto Rico, what’s going to happen five or 10 years from now?”

From 2017 to 2019, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates, 22,710 to 42,771 school-age children will migrate from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland with their families. This population loss, while increasing, is nothing new for Puerto Rico. The island’s economy has struggled for more than a decade, and from 2006 to 2016 it lost more than 525,000 net migrants, Hinojosa’s organization reports.

By 2016, there were 5.5 million stateside Puerto Ricans while the island’s population had fallen to about 3.4 million residents. The overwhelming reason why people are leaving the island, the Center notes, is to search for jobs or to relocate for employment reasons.

Victor Martinez, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico five years ago, launched an organization called Diaspora for Puerto Rico with a couple of friends after Hurricane Maria hit. The aim of the group is to help displaced Puerto Ricans get information they need when they arrive in the mainland U.S. Diaspora for Puerto Rico has worked with more than 200 families, including the Figueroas, mainly in the New York City area.

NAHB chairman Randy Noel says nearly all of the structures in Puerto Rico that withstood hurricane-force winds still suffered major window and roof damage.
Courtesy NAHB NAHB chairman Randy Noel says nearly all of the structures in Puerto Rico that withstood hurricane-force winds still suffered major window and roof damage.

Martinez knows how difficult it can be to leave home, but fleeing a natural disaster can compound the emotion. “We’re not exactly telling people to move, because we know that it’s difficult for Puerto Rico,” he says, “but at the same time, the people are looking out for their own benefit and that’s important. You can love your country and all that, but then you’re going to look for what is best for your family.”

What was best for the Figueroas was to pack up their belongings and move to New York. While they left out of necessity, they had no idea just how prescient that decision would prove to be.

Christall, who had graduated college in Puerto Rico, was looking to obtain a master’s degree in forensic science in New York when she felt a pain in her neck in November. After an MRI, doctors found a lesion on her brain and another on her spine and diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. From her hospital bed on Manhattan’s West Side, she told multifamily executive that the move to New York had literally saved her life.

“I can’t treat my condition in Puerto Rico,” she said, sitting up in her bed, her mother and brother at her side, citing New York’s superior medical facilities.

Future Prospects
The post-Maria recovery process in Puerto Rico is still in its early stages. When Winston spoke to the magazine in February, his neighbor in Bayamón had power restored to his home that day. But much of the island was still dark five months after the storm.

On Feb. 9, Congress approved nearly $90 billion in new disaster aid for U.S. states and territories ravaged by hurricanes or wildfires last year. According to The New York Times, that includes $4.8 billion to replenish Puerto Rico’s and the Virgin Islands’ Medicaid funds, $2 billion to restore the shredded power grid, and $9 billion for housing and urban development projects on the islands.

With financial resources heading to Puerto Rico, the problems Hurricane Maria highlighted with respect to the island’s housing stock may be improved upon.

Each dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation leads to an average $4 savings from avoided damages.

Source: Enterprise Community Partners

“Often, we find that these big climate events lift off the hood on communities’ internal machinations in terms of crisis points or ongoing issues, but storms will really expose them and aggravate the situation,” says Laurie Schoeman, senior program director, national initiatives, resilience, at Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing nonprofit based in Columbia, Md.

“Often, you find events do reveal community challenges that we have an opportunity through reconstruction to help solve for. Because if there’s money coming into a community, you can leverage that money to reconcile the challenges and differences,” she says.

As someone who has built resilient housing in Puerto Rico, Costa says there’s no reason for a development to be more than three stories high, since land is relatively inexpensive. Also, “going to this 100% concrete building is definitely a way to protect the investment from a long-term standpoint against those high winds they have down there,” he adds. Structures aren’t required to have concrete roofs in Puerto Rico, as long as the material can withstand 145 mph winds and other code requirements.

For MBS, Bennett says he’s open to developing more multifamily housing on Puerto Rico. “Given the demand, we hope to continue to seek opportunities to develop and build rental apartments that are designed to resilient standards. We think there’s a demand for high-quality rental housing in specific markets, like San Juan, that have a need for not only affordable housing but workforce and good-quality mixed-income housing,” he says.

Industry professionals, government agencies, and those who’ve lived through prior natural disasters expect the recovery process to take years in Puerto Rico. But after touring the devastation and meeting with stakeholders, the NAHB’s Noel is optimistic about the island’s future. “I think the Puerto Rican people will recover, because they’re hardworking,” he says. “They just need a little jump-start.”

Like each major climate event that upends thousands of lives, lessons will be learned from this one that will hopefully lessen the impact of future storms. But as Blackstone chief sustainability officer Don Anderson has seen over his time with the New York City–based firm, it’s tough to see the big picture after a catastrophic event.

“Because of the extent of the emergency and tragedy and recovery effort, it’s hard to pull out lessons in-cycle,” he says. “So, sometimes, we just go back to the old ways and say, ‘That was a horrible storm,’ instead of saying, ‘What did we learn and how do we move it forward so that other properties and humans don’t have to suffer so much?’ ”

That’s the task at hand in Puerto Rico.