Teaching the next generation of engineers how to make Puerto Rico’s infrastructure resilient

URI civil engineering alumna is teaching students how to rebuild Puerto Rico

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Alesandra Morales-Vélez checks out the damage to a building
Reconnaissance of the Puerto Rico Earthquake: Alesandra Morales-Vélez checks out the damage to a building after an earthquake struck Puerto Rico

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 15, 2021 – In the past four years, Puerto Rico has been decimated by hurricanes and earthquakes.

Within a two-week span in 2017, two major hurricanes left the Caribbean island without power, clean drinking water and very few passable roads. As Puerto Rico attempted to recover, it was devastated again by multiple earthquakes between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

Alesandra Morales-Vélez, who earned a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Rhode Island, is helping Puerto Rico’s infrastructure become more resilient by teaching engineering students at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez (UPRM) about sustainable practices.

“As civil engineers, we can build the infrastructure around us, but our curriculum needs to introduce the importance of infrastructure that is climate-resilient,” said Morales-Vélez, who has been an assistant professor of geotechnical engineering since 2015.

PR after Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo by Yuisa Rios/FEMA
PR after Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo by Yuisa Rios/FEMA

A few years ago, UPRM re-designed most of its engineering courses to take a cross-disciplinary approach to the design and construction of resilient infrastructure under extreme loads, such as powerful winds and earthquakes.

UPRM also created a new minor in Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure. The first students to complete the program will graduate this year.

“The goal has been to introduce multi-hazard analysis, sustainability and resilience to students early in their college careers,” said Morales-Vélez.

The URI alumna once sat in the seats that her students now occupy. After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, she decided to continue her education in Rhode Island.

Alesandra Morales-Vélez at the graduation ceremony of her first doctoral student, Andres Villarreal Arango
Graduation First PhD Student: Alesandra Morales-Vélez at the graduation ceremony of her first doctoral student, Andres Villarreal Arango

“I knew very little about Rhode Island, but I knew about URI Professor Chris Baxter through my adviser,” said Morales-Vélez. “My adviser went to college with Professor Baxter and they remained friends and colleagues. Professor Baxter’s work with soil characterization, shear wave velocity and laboratory testing was exactly what I was looking for.”

Taking advantage of a program created by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, Baxter helped Morales-Vélez enroll in the doctoral program.

“Thanks to a great fellowship program started by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, I was able to recruit Alesandra to URI,” said Baxter. “The program was designed specifically to recruit doctoral students from underrepresented groups in Puerto Rico.”

After her first year at URI, Baxter and Morales-Vélez co-authored a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. The project, which was approved for funding, became the subject of Morales-Vélez’s dissertation, “Evaluation of Field Based Approaches for Calcareous Sands Using Shear Wave Velocity Measurements.”

While Morales-Vélez is optimistic about Puerto Rico’s ability to rebuild and recover, she recognizes how much work there is left to do.

“Sadly, the infrastructure is still in very poor condition,” said Morales-Vélez. “We were struck by a 6.4 earthquake on January 7, 2020. The work that is needed to rebuild our roads, schools and hospitals is tremendous.”