A solar oasis amid widespread electric grid failure: Puerto Rico Convention Center

An oasis amid electric grid failure: Puerto Rico Convention Center

Two powerful hurricanes struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, causing widespread destruction.    However, Puerto Rico Convention Center was a shining example of what worked well during the disaster.  It was a solar oasis amid widespread electric grid failure and damage.

Hurricanes Maria and Irma

Hurricane Irma struck the island of Puerto Rico on September 12, 2017 followed by Hurricane Maria on September 20, 2017.  The twin blows to this wonderful island caused widespread damage, loss of lives and electric grid failure.  Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC) was a shining example of what worked well during the disaster. It was a solar oasis amid widespread electric grid failure and destruction.

PRCC Solar Panels
Solar roof over parking spaces

Electric grid failure and connectivity

PRCC is one of the largest convention centers in the Caribbean.  It has an exhibition hall that can accommodate nearly 17,000 people and a ball room that can accommodate more than 4,000 people.  It opened in 2005 and celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015 with annual visitors surpassing 4.7 million.  One of the interesting features of PRCC is its giant entrance canopy which mimics ocean waves, a fitting symbol for this island community.  PRCC is equipped with broadband and wireless Internet and offers video conferencing capability in every meeting area. With electric generation capacity of 5 MW, PRCC produced enough power to serve daily needs of the convention center during electric grid failure.

A briefing at PRCC
A briefing at PRCC

FEMA Emergency Response Center 

PRCC was designed per stringent building codes and was relatively unscathed by the hurricane.  When FEMA and Puerto Rican government officials needed a building to serve as their emergency response center, they immediately turned to PRCC.  It was the perfect location since it offered continuous power, Internet connectivity, and air-conditioned space for a large group of volunteers and emergency workers.  In fact, PRCC was the only building in Puerto Rico that could have supported such an operation.  It was also the only building that had continuous power as the electric grid collapsed for the rest of the island. 

Downed power line
Collapsed power line over a structure

NYC damage assessment team

NYC Department of Buildings together with other city departments sent teams of inspectors to assess the damage and offer technical support.  I joined one of the teams as a design professional and provided managerial support before, during and after the assessment.  Together, we inspected more than 4,500 structures over a two-week period.  My presentation at the 2018 Build Safe / Live Safe conference in New York City, captures lessons learned from the damage assessment of essential facilities as well as residential structures.

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A solar oasis amid disaster

During our damage assessment mission, we visited PRCC every day in the morning and in the evening.  The morning visit included briefings by FEMA and Emergency personnel, coordination of field visits and communication with our home base in New York City.  Th evening visits were used to review, process, and transmit field visit information gathered during the day and to plan for the following day.  It is hard to imagine what our experience would have been like without the facilities at the convention center.  It was truly an oasis amid widespread disaster and offered a glimpse of how sustainable architecture can withstand nature’s fury.

Title Image:  Jaime Olmo from Barceloneta, Puerto RicoCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.  Olmo, J. (n.d.). File:Centro de convenciones de Puerto Rico (5182241506).Jpg. Wikimedia.org. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Centro_de_Convenciones_de_Puerto_Rico_(5182241506).jpg

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