ISABELA, Puerto Rico — After losing her wood-framed home to Hurricane María, Kathy Valentine Hall, a marine biologist and expert in sea turtles, decided to build back stronger.
With funding from FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, a U.S. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loan, Kathy built a hurricane-resistant home that is safe for her family. Kathy used mitigation measures in the new concrete structure, following local building codes and using stronger building materials. She kept the original concrete pilings, added a rainwater collection system and installed hurricane-proof windows and doors.
These steps were particularly important because Kathy lives in a coastal zone atop a hill in Isabela, in the northwestern part of Puerto Rico. In general, homes in coastal areas must be designed and built to withstand higher loads and more extreme conditions. These protections result in higher costs to design, construct, maintain, repair and insure the home.
Kathy and her husband purchased a prefabricated wood home kit and built their home in the 1980s, following instructions from a manual for building a hurricane-strong home.
The house, built on 10-foot pilings, endured several hurricanes, including Hurricane Georges in 1998. But it was no match for María. Only the pilings and a small concrete room were spared. “I saw my house down and I was in shock,” Kathy said. “My neighbor told me that my home was hanging on until the last moment the eye hit. Then it all blew away.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are frequently hit by tropical storms and hurricanes. Damage is worsened by poor construction practices and less stringent building codes that typify the islands.
Kathy gathered all of her resources and broke ground on the project. Her friends volunteered to help. When the government waived permit fees for 180 days after the storm, Kathy took advantage and saved $11,645.
Unable to find a contractor, she hired some highly recommended laborers and enlisted the help of another
friend—an engineer—who drew up plans and inspected the project as it progressed. He suggested building the
home on top of the existing 10-foot concrete pilings and a ground-level room. Concrete pilings can resist coastal
hazards such as high wind and flooding impacts in addition to withstanding erosion.
The home design included a rainwater collection system. A friend gifted some recycled solar panels for hot
water. The rainwater system collects runoff and stores water that can be used for irrigation, flushing toilets,
washing clothes, washing cars and pressure washing. It can also be purified for use as everyday drinking water.
The design also featured commercial hurricane-proof doors and windows with tinted glass. During power
outages and high winds, the doors and windows allow natural light inside, help keep the house cooler and
reduce the amount of power needed to light it.
During construction, Kathy became the project manager. A neighbor volunteered his services as an electrician.
Still another neighbor offered to lend her the wooden forms needed to mold the concrete. She was able to save
thousands of dollars since she had been renting the molds at a huge expense.
“My main job was to drive to hardware stores, where materials are still in short supply,” she said.
Though Kathy faced many obstacles during the construction, she never gave up. She was successful in
balancing the needs for safety and strength with a budget. Her project cost amounted to $65,000, an investment
in her future.
“I thought I'd live in my wooden house forever but now I have a concrete roof over my head,” Kathy said.
For more information, read FEMA’s Coastal Construction Manual at fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-
1510-20490-2899/fema55_voli_combined.pdf and Guides to Coastal Construction fact sheets at
Pictures are available online of Kathy and her home at:
Disaster recovery assistance is available without regard to race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English
proficiency or economic status. If you or someone you know has been discriminated against, call FEMA toll-free at 800-
621-FEMA (3362) 711/VRS - Video Relay Service). Multilingual operators are available. (Press 2 for Spanish). TTY call