National News

With Smartphones in Hand, New York Inspectors Assessed Post-Storm Puerto Rico

Posted January 14, 2018 8:51 p.m. EST

Dozens of inspectors swarmed the streets of New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, filling out piles of paperwork as they assessed the damage.

Over 80,000 buildings were inspected, but city officials realized the process could have been completed more efficiently. So, in late 2016, the Department of Buildings began using technology that allowed inspectors to file reports from the field using a smartphone or tablet.

The technology was used in a disaster zone for the first time a few months ago, in Puerto Rico.

The Department of Buildings sent a 14-member team to inspect damage to homes and government buildings after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island in September. Inspectors assessed nearly 5,100 structures, helping local officials understand the magnitude of the destruction

“Having people from the mainland that came in early, left late, and didn’t have to worry about not having electricity in their homes — it was extremely necessary,” said David Carrasquillo Medrano, an adviser on planning and land use affairs for the city of San Juan, the island’s capital.

New York City buildings department officials said they mapped the damage and streamed the results in near-real time to officials.

“During other storm events you could wait several days before you have a sort of common operating picture of what is going on,” Aidan Mallamo, the Building Department’s director of quantitative and special analytics, said. “Here, within the first two or three days, every hour, they were seeing what the results were of our inspections, and that’s a unique thing.”

The inspectors were among the almost 300 New York City workers who went to the U.S. territory after the storm. Personnel from 17 city agencies have supported emergency management operations, sorting donations and cleaning up debris, according to Nancy Silvestri, the press secretary for the city’s Department of Emergency Management.

New York City was one of a handful of local governments that sent workers to the island. The state of New York, for example, has sent 452 workers to help repair the power grid, 152 medical volunteers and 152 National Guard police, among others. Florida deployed 500 law enforcement officers and has coordinated more than 2,500 flights carrying over 15,000 tons of cargo and more than 12,000 people.

City inspectors said they also brought water, food and diapers to distribute to residents in communities left isolated.

“We were going to areas of San Juan like the barrios in the mountains,” Luis Vasquez, a chief inspector, said. “In a lot of places we were like heroes. We were the first ones they saw.”

The first team of two sent on Sept. 24 inspected critical infrastructure like hospitals, schools and even city hall in San Juan. The second team of 12 left on Oct. 6 and mapped the damage to thousands of homes.

Using their smartphones, inspectors used a color key to map the damage: Green meant the building was safe; yellow, the building was damaged, but habitable; and red denoted unsafe conditions. They uploaded descriptions and photos of the damage to a digital dashboard.

The data allowed officials to identify houses that needed roof tarps, as well as buildings that could serve as centers for the distribution of food and water.

“New York helped with many things, not just inspections, but inspections are one of the most underrated and important things because it gives you data on which you can base tangible actions,” Carrasquillo Medrano, the San Juan official, said.

New York City inspectors reached about 65-70 percent of the neighborhoods in the capital, he said in a phone interview. However, officials in Puerto Rico often had trouble accessing the data because the internet connection was too weak at the time. But, since mid-October, San Juan officials have added data of their own, he said.

Nearly four months after the storm, about 40 percent of the island is still without electricity, and some parts of the island are expected to be without power for another eight months.

“It’s surreal — churches split in half, electricity poles down, houses that flew up-mountain,” said Edgardo Butler, a New York City inspector who also was born on the island. “The Puerto Rico I remember was ripped away.”