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Harrisonburg engineer helps build hurricane resilience in Puerto Rico

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Johann Zimmerman
Johann Zimmerman (center, in plaid) with a crew from the organization AMPI in Puerto Rico, celebrating the completion of sheathing a hurricane-resistant roof shortly before a storm.

A Harrisonburg-based structural engineer has been sharing his knowledge with Puerto Rican contractors and officials on how to build hurricane-resilient houses. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Johann Zimmerman and his team at JZ Engineering spend a lot of their time volunteering domestically and internationally – building schools, houses, wells, and bridges, and passing on those skills.

JOHANN ZIMMERMAN: We kind of take a Robin Hood approach! Take the money from those that have it and need engineering services, we provide those services, and then use that money to do our nonprofit work. So our salaries might not be as high as in the marketplace, but we make up for that by feeling very rewarded by the work we do.

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Johann Zimmerman
Workshop participants review the construction of a hurricane-resistant model house they built.

In 2019, he conducted 11 workshops all over Puerto Rico, with help from FEMA and Mennonite Disaster Service – teaching nonprofit workers, government officials, contractors, and homeowners how to build houses, and specifically roofs, that can better withstand hurricanes.

ZIMMERMAN: And we looked at many different examples showing exactly how things failed, and then we broke it down and studied each one in particular. Why did this screw give way? Well, there were supposed to be five screws there, and there was only one.

Zimmerman recently returned to the island to check on the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona. He spoke with five organizations that had taken the training, including Habitat for Humanity, and found that all 600 roofs those groups had built since had successfully weathered the storm.

The relationship is not just a one-way street, though.

ZIMMERMAN: About two months ago, we had a group of half a dozen volunteers from Puerto Rico come help with the hurricane reconstruction in Maryland! … They were also asking me, okay, what kind of help is going to be needed in Florida now?

Last week, Zimmerman presented on these workshops at the National Disaster Resilience Conference in Florida.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.