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
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.
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.
“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.