At least 63% of the bridges that collapsed or were damaged by Hurricane María were already in a critical state of erosion prior to the storm due to lack of maintenance, putting people who cross them at risk, revealed an investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) that required an access for information lawsuit against the Highway and Transportation Authority (ACT, in Spanish).
Of the 32 bridges that the ACT listed as part of the court proceeding – which collapsed or closed after the hurricane hit in September 2017 – 20 were classified as critically damaged, according to the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) inventory of bridges that the ACT submits annually to the federal agency, reviewed by the CPI.
A bridge is weakened when the material that surrounds its foundation, such as sediment, w eakens or erodes, jeopardizing the structure’s capacity to sustain itself. Bridges that are over rivers with fast-flowing currents are more likely to weaken due to the impact that quick-moving water causes on the foundation of this road infrastructure. A study published in the Journal of Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering in 2014 established that structural weakening is the leading cause of bridge collapse in the United States.
For the president of the Puerto Rico College of Engineers and Surveyors '(CIAPR, in Spanish) Earthquake Commission, Engineer Félix Rivera, monitoring the structural susceptibility of bridges should be addressed as a priority safety issue.
“The bridge is already strained. I would say that if it’s susceptible to damage, it’s useless. If it’s debilitated, it’s useless. They must be closed immediately, ”Rivera warned after the CPI showed him the initial list of 22 collapsed bridges that ACT delivered as a result of the lawsuit for access to information, and each one's critical structural deficiency classification, according to the inventory database of bridges in Puerto Rico.
“When Hurricane María hit, I went out to do inspections and what I saw most were structures with no maintenance. The lack of maintenance caused greater damage, ”Rivera added.
The 20 bridges in critical state of structural vulnerability prior to the hurricane were located all around the island: over the Río Grande de Arecibo, Canóvanas River, Culebrinas River in Moca, Río Grande de Manatí, Hoconuco River in San Germán, Duey River in Yauco, Viví River in Utuado, Tanamá River in Arecibo, Bayamón River, Chiquito River in Utuado, Guaonica River in Utuado, Inabón River in Juana Díaz, Santiago River in Naguabo, as well as an irrigation canal in Patillas and a stream in Moca.
Besides the 20 structures that were in critical condition, the FHWA's list of 32 includes two bridges that were not inspected to assess how weakened they are, located on Félix Avenue over the Corozal River and on PR-627 over the Río Grande de Arecibo.
Most of the bridges classified as critically damaged are located in municipalities that suffered the most devastation after the hurricane. One of these cases is Utuado, in the central mountainous region, a municipality where the communities had to improvise roads, crossings and small bridges.
In September 2019, the CPI made the first request for the list of vulnerable bridges. However, the agency refused to provide it, arguing concern that the document would fall into the hands of the press or academics. Both the ACT's head of Bridge Inventory Management, Manuel Coll, and the agency's Executive Director, Engineer Rosana Aguilar Zapata, objected to the request for disclosure of this public document.
“I'm very concerned about giving it to you because we even give it to professors and what they do is misinterpret it. For example, this issue of 'susceptible to weakening', ”Coll said, when the CPI requested the list in September 2019.
“ We have an audience out there that I would be concerned if they were to misinterpret it, ”said ACT Consulting Engineer Ariel Pérez, when the CPI made the same request weeks later. Aguilar Zapata nodded her head alongside him in approval of the objection.
On January 30, the CPI sued the ACT after the agency refused to hand over: 1) the list of bridges susceptible to deterioration; 2) the list of bridges destroyed by Hurricane María: and 3) the list of bridges reopened after they were destroyed by the September 2017 storm.
More than two years after the hurricane, the ACT did not have a full list of bridges that María destroyed
As a result of the lawsuit, the agency submitted an original list with 22 bridges, and after the CPI presented evidence in the courtroom of at least nine others that had collapsed, the ACT sent an expanded list on July 2, in which the number went up to 32. Not only the collapsed bridges were included in the new list, but also those that were affected and closed as a result of the hurricane. The new document also added bridges under municipal jurisdiction, which the CPI had mentioned to the agency were not on the original list.
Rivera also questioned that the list of collapsed bridges that the ACT initially provided only included 22 of these structures.  “I believe there must be more than 22,” the CIAPR engineer warned.
An example of a bridge destroyed by María excluded from the ACT's initial list is the one over the Santiago River in the Tropical Beach community on PR- 3 in Naguabo on the East coast. A temporary bridge was inaugurated more than two years after the hurricane, on Dec. 13, 2019. Although the previous structure did not collapse solely as a result of the 2017 storm, Hurricane María did affect the bridge and its subsequent closure, as one of the ACT's press spokespeople admitted in June 2018 .
In a hearing held at the San Juan Superior Court on Feb. 27 as part of the case, Coll admitted that the office he directs did not have all the information on the bridges María destroyed and that there could be more than those that appear in the list of collapsed structures that the ACT provided.
“I would say that the one in Los Filtros (Bayamón) is missing and there must be others. If you want, I will add those three (Los Filtros, one in Maricao and a third on PR-52), ”Coll told the CPI’s attorneys prior to the beginning of the court hearing. “If you know of others, send me the coordinates,” the engineer said, vowing to look into other bridges that the CPI told him were destroyed.
“We're going to look at the municipal bridges regardless of whether they are under municipal jurisdiction, and add them to the list, ”said Coll.
The government agency released a list of 32 collapsed bridges on July 2. However, the ACT never provided the CPI with a list of bridges susceptible to deterioration, which is different from the list of collapsed bridges. It only sent a link to access the inventory of the 2,325 bridges in Puerto Rico, as published on the FHWA’s website. This document shows a column with current information on the level of critical deterioration assigned to each bridge after its evaluation.
Of the list of 32 bridges that the ACT prepared, 30 are listed as being open following the improvements or construction of the replacement bridge, which are mostly temporary.
GAO points out irregularities in fund requests and contract awards for bridges in Puerto Rico
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified irregularities in the way the FHWA handled the request for federal funds to rebuild two bridges affected by Hurricane María.
According to a report published in October 2019, the bridges on PR -145 in Ciales and on PR-14 were declared emergency repair projects 180 days after the event that caused their collapse or damage. According to Federal law, projects presented as emergency repairs can obtain 100% federal funding, as long as they are requested within the 180-day period.
A GAO spokesperson explained that it is common FHWA practice to install temporary bridges immediately after a disaster as a measure to restore essential traffic and minimize damage caused by the natural phenomenon. However, these repairs are generally made within a 180-day period from the day the event occurred.
“The temporary bridges in Puerto Rico were not planned for completion for more than 2 years after Hurricane Maria hit, raising questions about whether an emergency situation existed and the project was needed to quickly restore essential traffic. " GAO Director of Public Affairs Chuck Young told the CPI.
In the case of the bridge in Ciales, the CPI confirmed that the contract was signed on March 23, 2018, or 184 days after Hurricane María, for which the GAO's warning in the audit is prompted by a four-day delay. GAO questions the fact that the FHWA did not adequately document the reason for making the request after the statutory period required by law.
The report also questioned a decision to reduce the number of companies that could submit proposals to fix the bridge. According to GAO, completing jobs and contracts expeditiously is not justified after the emergency period, which is set at 180 days. Likewise, they questioned the way in which money was requested for the work of a bridge that will be temporary.
The contract for the construction of the temporary bridge in Ciales was awarded to Santa & Co., according to the Puerto Rico Comptroller's Office Contract Registry. Over the course of 18 months from the day of its signing, 11 change orders were made to the contract, which ultimately cost $ 4.6 million, which is $ 300,000 less than what the government initially estimated for the project, according to the GAO's audit.  “The classification of the project as an emergency repair raises questions about whether the project was an efficient use of federal funds. The $ 4.9 million temporary bridge involves considerable construction such as building footings with 5-million pounds of concrete and reinforced steel and, as stated previously, is not planned for completion until October 2019. FHWA officials stated this structure will be torn down within a couple of years and replaced by a $ 6.4 million permanent structure, ”according to the document.
The GAO admitted to the CPI that although its report says the cost was $ 4.9 million, that figure was the original estimate, but that the project actually cost $ 4.6 million.
Of the list of 32 bridges affected by the hurricane, which the ACT gave to the CPI in July of this year, 21 were replaced by modular or temporary structures, six were opened to traffic after repairs to the original structure, two are waiting for repairs done by the municipality, one had its superstructure rebuilt, one was built as a Ford-type bridge, and only one is identified as entailing the construction of a new per manent structure.
Although the GAO's observations in its audit are directed to FHWA, the bidding and contracting process for the bridge construction projects falls on the government of Puerto Rico.
The bridge on PR-14 has claims similar to the bridge in Ciales for not complying with the 180-day statutory period. Although the GAO document does not specify its location, the CPI found that it is the Puente de Hierro over the Descalabrado River in the municipality of Coamo.
The GAO states there was no justification for classifying that bridge as an emergency repair because the structure remained in use after being affected by the hurricane. After María, the bridge’s transit load was reduced from five to three tons. So, the report states that the request for federal funds to build a temporary substitute bridge that is projected to be demolished within two years after it becomes operational, was unjustified.
But, contrary to the GAO, engineer Rivera believes this case did deserve to be classified as an emergency repair.
“It is a bridge that is diminishing its capacity. I believe that yes, it requires emergency funds and it can be repaired and returned to its original five-ton condition, ”said the CIAPR member.
One issue that the federal audit does not mention is that, prior to the 2017 atmospheric event, the construction of a cement bridge was already underway that would replace the original metal structure in Coamo.
Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America