Building Puentes: How to repair a Puerto Rican flat concrete roof



  1. Drive to your work site. Enjoy the air conditioning in the van—it’s the coolest time of your whole day! Also enjoy the scenery. The part of Puerto Rico where you’re headed (Yabucoa district) is mountainous and full of lovely tropical plants and flowers. The flamboyan trees lift up bright orange blooms; golden pothos, snake plant, and other greenery flourish in super-sizes. You drive past banana groves and coconut palms. In one town, a food truck parked directly across from a cow pasture sells fried empanadas. “A VERY short supply chain,” Chris jokes.

  2. Arrive at your work site. Meet the resident(s), unload your equipment, and figure out how to access the roof. It’s a second-story area, and your extension ladder is not long enough to reach it directly. So you rig a ladder from the patio roof—a three-foot ledge outside a concrete rail-and-post barrier. After tightly tying the ladder in place with ropes, you climb up to take a look.

  3. Clean the roof. Next, you hoist your gas-powered pressure washer up to the roof, with “many hands” and more rope. One person runs the power washer, while others scrape and remove moss and debris with brooms. When you finish, you stop for lunch, hoping that the roof will dry enough to apply primer. It doesn’t, because water pools in pitted areas and uneven spots. So you give up for the day and pray that it won’t rain overnight.

  4. Apply primer. The following day, you’re in luck: the roof is dry! If it’s been previously treated, your roof may have areas of bubbled and cracked sealant that have to be scraped before you prime. You sweep up the piles of debris as you go, to avoid having the strong breeze blow them over to the neighbor’s house. (He was upset yesterday because the power washer splashed dirty water on his wall that he painted “just last week!”)
    The primer comes in 5-gallon buckets that weigh about 40 lbs. You hoist half a dozen buckets up to the roof, and prepare to start spreading with long-handled rollers. The primer is a thin white liquid that splashes all over the place. It quickly dries clear in most places, so you finish spreading it and break for lunch, first rinsing out your rollers.

  5. Eat lunch. Today the lady of the house has prepared Puerto Rican food for your lunch: yellow rice and gondules (green pigeon peas), with a lightly-seasoned stew of chicken, pumpkin (calabaza), and other vegetables. There’s a delightful tropical punch to drink. She doesn’t speak much English, but is delighted when you enjoy the food. She brings you packaged cookies and chocolate wafers for dessert.

  6. Apply sealant. The sealant also comes in 5-gallon buckets, but they’re considerably heavier. More hoisting to the roof. . . The primer is mostly dry, but has puddled in places. So you spread it out with your rollers, and decide that some areas are dry enough to start sealing anyway. One person is the “slopper,” dumping pools of thick, bluish-white sealant for the others to spread around. Just when you get a good rhythm going, it starts to rain. You quickly cover the bucket of sealant, send your equipment down from the roof, and climb down. It’s a significant storm, so you have to give up for the day, and hope that it’s dry tomorrow. (Ice cream on the way back!)

  7. Try again on the sealant. If you’re lucky, the roof is dry enough to work. So you start in on “slopping” and spreading. Most people wind up with light-blue splashes of rubbery sealant over their shoes and pant legs. You carefully plan your strategy so that no one gets painted into a corner, or smote with a pole—and you finish in the area nearest the ladder. The roof is a hot place to work, but there’s a nice breeze. You work as fast as you can, with required stops every few minutes for drinking water or Gatorade. One by one, the members of the team take their equipment and climb down from the roof, until only one person is left to spread the last bit. You finish off your last bucket, and climb down from the roof. You call the LSS representative to inspect, and take pictures of your finished work.
    Later, after your shower, you find more blue patches on your arms. Oh well! It’ll come off eventually.

~Sharon Stromberg

Katie Simbala