T&T existing along the same fault line as hapless Haiti


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Category: Reflections 02 Mar 10

Disaster in T&T Pt 6

In this penultimate special report on Disaster in T&T, are you prepared? Ira Mathur examines how the State’s enactment of a building code can save tens of thousands of lives, in the event of a major disaster.

“My colleagues and I at the Seismic Centre have all been saying, for the last five or six years, certainly since we got that on-land event (earthquake in Trinidad) in 2004, that we should see that as a wake-up call... “We should have woken up already,” says Dr Richard Robertson, Director of the Seismic Research Centre, UWI. With extraordinary prescience, this Trinidad Guardian and CNC3 special report series has coincided with one of the deadliest earthquakes on earth in a century which struck Chile with a magnitude of 8.8. Although the death toll there has risen to well over 700, it is nowhere near Haiti’s, estimated at a catastrophic 300,000. And this is despite the fact that Chile’s earthquake was 100 times more powerful than the 7.0 magnitude one that hit Haiti.

This discrepancy is attributed largely to Chile’s strictly-enforced building code and meticulous disaster-preparedness, as opposed to the collapse of most of Haiti’s structures, which were structurally unsound. The Chilean Government has only reluctantly opened the door to foreign aid, with its President Michelle Bachelet declaring: “We generally don’t ask for help.” It will be utterly irresponsible if T&T fails to learn the lessons so tragically thrust on our region, especially as we live along the same fault line as Haiti’s. It is possible to avoid the deaths and devastation of Haiti, and the financial devastation hurricanes like Ivan wreaked on Grenada. What accounts for the difference? A building code. Dr Richard Clarke, lecturer in the Engineering Department at UWI, says if an earthquake of the magnitude of 8.0 and above takes place here, “90 per cent of our homes will be destroyed” and deaths and injuries will run into “at least 30,000,” with as many injuries. Any plan for a large-scale disaster here depends on the way we build our homes and other buildings.

Firstly, given that 90 per cent of T&T’s housing stock was built without a code, these will also be the instruments of death and injuries, as they will collapse. Secondly, they cannot protect us from the effects of a hurricane, forcing the Government to plan for mass evacuations and shelter provision. CNC3’s random surveys, however, have aptly demonstrated that most people don’t know what to do or where to go in the event of such a disaster, which almost guarantees absolute chaos if and when it hits. The experts are worried about Government’s complacency regarding enacting a building code which exists. The T&T Small Building Code, created by the Board of Engineering, was approved by the Bureau of Standards in 2006. However, Clarke laments that since the Building Guide at the Bureau of Standards is “not mandatory,” it cannot be enforced. Col Mahendra Mathur, former director of NEMA, said: “In Japan, the building codes are the best in the world. California is a close second. But it’s not the codes that save the buildings; it’s ensuring that they are followed. “It’s important we have building inspectors who go out and inspect the buildings.”

Clarke said similar solutions were applicable to the devastating effects of both hurricanes and earthquakes. If we prevent buildings from being destroyed, we save lives and billions of dollars in the aftermath of a disaster. Col Mathur adds that people who have already built homes must make it a priority to make them earthquake and hurricane-resistant. “The cost of retrofitting is a fraction, compared to the cost which people will pay with their lives and in damage,” he said.

In order to mitigate a Haiti, a “rubble in waiting”-type disaster, Mark Francois, a structural engineer, suggests the following steps as a matter of urgency:

• Enactment of a building code.

• Mandatory registration of engineers practising in T&T.

• Establishment of contractor certification and registration legislation.

• Retrofitting of “essential buildings” (such as hospitals, schools, shelters, police stations, army headquarters, fire services) to meet the highest standards.

• Large-scale retrofitting programme, including public and private buildings, that could prevent a natural event from becoming a national disaster.

• Establishment of a government-supported campaign with the aim of promoting retrofitting of lower and middle income homes via tax incentives, for example.

Francois added:

“While there is an act for the registration of engineers, there is no law that requires anyone engineering a building to be registered with the Board of Engineering.” He maintained that the “requirements for registration needed to be more stringent.” Similarly, Francois said it was “imperative that some form of contractor registration and certification is introduced to minimise cases of complaints by citizens that they have been ‘ripped-off’.” The social contract requires that the foremost responsibility of any functioning state to its citizens is ensuring their safety. If the catastrophe that would hit T&T—if either a devastating hurricane or an earthquake (and it is noted that over the last three years Haiti has suffered both) occurred here—the State, by its own admission (through the offices of the ODPM and relevant agencies), would not be able to ensure citizens were protected from serious injury and death.

While it was true that the Government could not prevent the disasters, there is, for example, in the San Francisco Bay quake (California, 1989), and now in Chile that a combination of knowledge, timely warning, implementation of preventative measures, detailed emergency planning for and after the event, and comprehensive education of citizens saved hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars of loss. The time to act is now.


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