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Hazard Mitigation Assistance Feature Story Archive

This page provides access to archived features stories from the Hazard Mitigation Assistance Communications page.

USVI Mitigated Roofs Remain Strong After 20 Years and Hurricanes Irma, Maria

It was mid-hurricane season 1995 in the U.S. Virgin Islands. No storm had hit the region since Hugo seven years prior, but in the first weeks of September, Hurricane Luis made landfall. A week later, Hurricane Marilyn, a Category 3 storm, followed in its wake.diameter than Luis but wreaked much more havoc. Wind gusts of 129 miles per hour were recorded, storm tides measured six to seven feet high and rainfall was reported to be as much as 10 inches in some areas.

In total, Marilyn was responsible for eight deaths, the loss or damage of 21,000 homes, impairment of 5,800 utility poles and destruction of two sewer plants. In St. Thomas, the storm rendered a desalinization plant inoperative and damaged approximately 75 percent of the residences. As a result FEMA’s USVI damage estimates came in at $2.1 billion.

Pictured is an aerial view of five homes in the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma impacted the island.  The home at the font was constructed with a Home Protection Roofing Program corrugated metal roof.  The homes with blue tarps on the roofs behind it were damaged by Hurricane Irma.While most of the affected dwellings were either insured or eligible for recovery efforts through assistance programs, a small percentage were not. As a result, a year after Marilyn, then- Governor of St. Thomas, Roy L. Schneider, appealed to FEMA for aid repairing or replacing roofs for approximately 350 homes on the islands.

Through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, slightly over $30 million was granted to the USVI, providing the Territory with resources for design, construction, formal construction management oversight, and quality assurance and quality control.  The grant also funded a vital part of the regions’ post-disaster mitigation plan — the Home Protection Roofing Program (HPRP).

One of the key components of the HPRP was to address the issue of poorly attached roofs which could easily be torn from houses by wind. FEMA collaborated with local USVI officials to develop two HPRP design solutions: improving the attachment of corrugated metal roofs to joists or beams, or building roofs by applying a liquid membrane over plywood.

Example of a home with a Home Protection Roofing Program liquid applied roof membrane.Another of the HPRP’s enhancements involved homes’ gutter systems. At the time of Marilyn, most homes had external gutters that drained rainwater into cisterns. The water could later be used as gray water for general household activities or treated to become drinking water.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Marilyn tore many external gutters from homes, which then became damaging, flying debris and whose absence prevented cisterns from recharging.  During the HPRP design specification process, it was determined that roofs should be reconstructed with pieces of lumber at the edges to dam rainwater and drain it into downspouts. This created integral gutters and reduced the hazard caused by external gutters.

More than 20 years later, in the wake of Irma and Maria, a 12-person mitigation team from FEMA’s Joint Field Office in the USVI, returned to the islands. One of their goals was to assess a sample of St. Thomas HPRP homes to determine how the roofs fared.

The result: no structural damage was observed. Additionally, the team visited approximately 75 homes containing integral gutters. None of them dislodged and flew away.

“This program was a success,” said Jonathan Westcott, Civil Engineer and member of the U.S. Virgin Islands Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT).

In fact, one homeowner whose HPRP-improved home performed well during the hurricanes invited her two adult sons to move in with her after their homes were destroyed during the storm. When a mitigation specialist asked about her roof, she is said to have responded “The Governor gave me my roof and I’m very happy for it.”

Pictured is an example of the Home Protection Roofing Program's integral gutter.“[We’re] really pleased with the performance we’re seeing out of these buildings,” said Tom Smith, member of the current USVI MAT and one of the original architects who developed roof modification design specifications under the HPRP.

On the heel of Hurricanes Irma and Maria USVI wrap-up activities, mitigation specialists are taking time to reflect on past projects, such as the HPRP, to assess how its successes may be used to recover from recent devastation.

Although the HPRP design specifications did not account for topographic winds (for example, increased wind speeds due to sudden geographical changes such as a cliff), HPRP roofs still performed well during the storms because of their robust design and details.

Future construction proposals will use increased wind load criterion based on research conducted since Hurricane Marilyn. Additionally, although there is no requirement for integral gutters in the current building code, their outstanding performance during the 2017 Hurricane Season led Mitigation Subject Matter Experts to recommend them for rebuilding efforts.

Pictured are homes along a cliff in the US Virgin Islands that were constructed with Home Protection Roofing Program design elements.  The roofs of these homes did not sustain much damage after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.Regardless of the HPRP’s successes, some MAT members consider the greatest post-Marilyn accomplishment to be advancements in the USVI building code. Prior to Marilyn, the code for wind resistance was weak, but following FEMA’s post-storm recommendation, USVI adopted the 1994 Uniform Building Code which provided significantly more wind resistance requirements. As a result, although Hurricanes Irma and Maria were more severe than Marilyn, structures that were repaired or constructed to the 1994 codes showed far less roof damage during Hurricanes Irma and Maria than structures built pre-1994.

Interested in learning more? Visit the FEMA USVI Facebook page for more information on the USVI recovery process.

Read more about FEMA's Mitigation Assessment Team Program and its past projects.

Helping to Protect Communities Against Disaster

This year marks the 30-year anniversary since the Robert T. Stafford Act was amended to include
funding for hazard mitigation grants as a way to help communities recover and rebuild after a
Presidentially-declared disaster. In the last three decades, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance
programs have expanded to three mitigation grant programs for pre-and post-disaster events and
recently surpassed $15 billion in funding provided for state, local, tribal and territorial mitigation
projects.  Communities across the nation are now more resilient, and that growth continues. 

Watch Hazard Mitigation Assistance Branch Chiefs Karen Helbrecht, Michael Hillenburg and Anna
Pudlo share their reflections on the value and benefits of mitigation

To learn more, visit and view a detailed timeline
showcasing some defining events and advancements in the history of FEMA’s mitigation assistance
program. Read A Look Back at 30 Years of Mitigation Helping Communities Rebuild Stronger and A
Lasting Impact on Communities

Water Supply Project Helps Ensure Long-Term Water Security to Puerto Rican Town

A History of Water Concerns

By 2015, a severe drought had been plaguing Salinas, a town in southern Puerto Rico, for over a year. This situation was magnified because the area had suffered several, consecutive dry years leading up to the drought. The community was in crisis because water levels in its aquifer - its natural underground water supply – had also been steadily declining for 10 years and at the end of 2016 were at their lowest, recorded level of 31.42 feet. Local leadership’s immediate response was to enforce a municipal water ration by turning off well pumps for several hours each day, but they were also seeking a long-term solution.

Salinas is home to approximately 31,000 residents, as well as industries, irrigated farms, schools, hospitals and the Camp Santiago National Guard training base. All of these depend exclusively on the aquifer for their water supply.

But low aquifer levels have put the town’s water at risk to saline intrusion from proximate ocean sources. In fact, the dissolved salt concentration in municipal wells has reached the recommended upper limit for drinking supply, and the aquifer suffers from nitrate contamination due to surface water runoff.

Because of the state of Salinas’ water, no new wells may be constructed, and no new water connections are permitted to the town’s supply. This eliminates any economic development activities that require new connections to the municipal water supply system or wells.

These combination of factors led the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) to declare a water emergency condition until a remedy could be implemented.

Seeking Assistance – Expert Solution

An Executive Order issued by former Governor Alejandro García Padilla called for a solution. This led to an interagency committee under guidance of the DNER.

The committee proposed several alternatives including: the reduction of water supplies to agricultural users to supply a new water filtration plant, a new pipeline to transport water from a distant area, and desalination. The committee determined these were not the best options for Salinas because all are costly and the first two would reduce water supplies available for other users.

But another alternative, a strategy of aquifer storage and recovery, was found favorable. It works by diverting a portion of water that is normally spilled to the sea from Patillas reservoir to the Salinas area to recharge and restore the aquifer balance. 

Aquifer storage and recovery would be much less costly than any of the others. Also, not only would it maintain the existing municipal supply, it could also reinforce water availability for agriculture and other users.

After deciding on this course of action, Salinas applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant to subsidize what was to become the Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) mitigation project.

PDM grants are designed to assist states, U.S. territories, federally-recognized tribes, and local communities implement sustainable mitigation projects that reduce their risks to future hazard events.

Because reduced risks means reduced reliance on federal recovery funding, the government provides grants for a majority of the project costs. Grant applicants contribute a matching share percentage. In the case of the ASR project, the Government of Puerto Rico will provide $714,053 and FEMA will award the remaining project costs of $2,142,159.

Once the project is in operation, the average recharge volume will provide the aquifer with twice as much water as withdrawn by Salinas for municipal supply. This will support resuscitation of the local economy and community development.

Watch the video to discover more about the Salinas Aquifer Storage and Recovery project.  

Learn about mitigating flood and drought conditions and the process of applying for a similar project in your community.

View in FEMA Multimedia Library

Last Updated: 
12/17/2019 - 16:21