How to save your life if disaster strikes


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Category: Reflections 03 Mar 10

Disaster in T&T Pt 7

In this, the seventh and final report in this series, Ira Mathur has put together a plan aimed at saving people in the event of a disaster. At the Admission Office of the Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) and interviews with disaster experts it could safely be concluded from this series that in the event of an earthquake of a magnitude of 7.0 and above T&T will be in a similar situation to Haiti where 90 per cent of homes are guaranteed to collapse and cause tens of thousands of deaths.

Chile’s death toll was contained under 800 (a mere three pre cent of the estimated 270,000 that died in Haiti) despite the fact it was struck by a colossal 8.8 magnitude earthquake, 500 times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti. The difference between the two countries was that Chile has an enforceable building code unlike Haiti and T&T. In this series, on behalf of the citizens of T&T a senior engineer at UWI has called on the Government to enact a building code in T&T and ensure the retrofitting of homes and essential buildings which could save the lives of thousands of our citizens. The response to CNC3’s news clips and the print series in the Guardian from many citizens came in the form of more questions, such as:
What happens to those of us who cannot afford to retrofit our homes? What happens to those who live below the poverty line and live in the flimsiest of dwellings?

These are questions that the Government must address as a matter of urgency. It must be remembered that T&T was hit with a magnitude of 8.5 in 1843 and Dr Richard Robertson, Director, Seismic Research Research Centre, UWI, said given earthquakes of such a size strike every 100 years T&T is “overdue” for a major hit. When asked to give advice to the population on how to be ready for disasters, Col Robinson, CEO, ODPM has said: “You must prepare your own home and your own family for the hazard impact. If the hazard defeats the systems you have put in place for your own safety, you can turn to the system the state has provided for you.” However, given that a random vox pop has shown that people don’t know what to do or where to go, (with one man even venturing to guess that the bar could be his nearest shelter). The following is a disaster preparedness plan in the event of a major earthquake or hurricane which could be a starting point for each family’s personal plan.

Dr Richard Clarke, lecturer at the Engineering Department of the University of the West Indies advises:

1. Ensure that your home, your place of work and your children's schools meet the specifications laid down in the small building code.
The code is available from the Bureau of Standards or online from the Board of Engineering of Trinidad and Tobago’s website (

2. Dr Clarke summarises the Small Buildings Code:

(a) Make sure your foundation is properly built;

(b) the walls should be made with150mm (6-inch) blocks which are joined to foundation, columns, and roof tie beam with steel reinforcing rods;

(c) the reinforcing rods should not be placed at the block joints, rather they should go though carefully made holes in the blocks;

(d) after the reinforced steel is placed in the blocks, the blocks should be filled with concrete mixed in the proper proportions as recommended by the guide;

(e) when the concrete is being poured into the blocks, it should be rodded (compacted using steel rods) to ensure that there are no air bubbles in the concrete;

(f) make sure you have linked “tie beams” at the top of the walls, tying the walls (both external and internal) together; and,

(g) ensure that the all parts of the roof are properly joined together and then joined to the tie beams.

3. To retrofit the walls of a house, parts of the existing wall blocks are broken and steel reinforcement rods and poured concrete is placed at the required positions as noted in the Small Building Guide.

4. In addition to the retrofitting your homes the ODPM recommends the following in the event of either hurricanes or earthquakes:

(a) Bolt heavy furniture, water tanks, water heaters, gas cylinders and storage units to walls or floors;

(b) place largest and heaviest items on lower shelves; and,

(c) pictures, light fittings and other hanging objects should be checked to ensure that they are secure and will not fall.

Hurricane shutters or pre cut plywood (at least 3⁄4-inch, external plywood) should be stored and used to prevent damage to windows. (to obtain designs, search for “hurricane shutter” at

5. Once the primary shelter is organised a pre-disaster plan needs to be in place.

This plan will ensure that items to be used in an emergency are collected and family members are briefed as to what to do in an emergency. Based on the combined recommendations of the ODPM, the Red Cross Society, the Ministry of Health and the American FEMA Web site here are some suggestions for such a plan:

(a) Know your home's vulnerability to earthquakes, storm surge, flooding, landslides and wind;

(b) check your insurance coverage;

(c) if you live in places that are likely to be cut off because of landslides and damaged roads or likely to suffer flooding contact the Red Cross Society which have been training and equipping community-based groups to respond in their communities;

(d) locate the safest area in your home or immediate area;

(e) all family members should know what to do during an earthquake and hurricane and do regular drills;

(f) take First Aid, CPR and disaster-preparedness classes;

(g) keep a minimum of ten days supply of canned food and water; and;

(h) emergency items and equipment, prescription medication, flashlights, battery-operated radios, fire extinguishers and a first aid kit should be readily available.

6. During an earthquake Dr Richard Robertson, Director, Seismic Research Centre, UWI, gives us the following advice:

Firstly do not panic. If indoors:

  1. Watch for falling objects — broken glass, bricks, walls, ceiling, light fixtures, bookcases, cabinets, shelves. Do not run unless you are obviously in danger of a falling building. Stay alert;

  2. Stay away from windows and mirrors;

  3. During the shaking get under a strong bed, table, desk or doorway. If none of these are available, crouch and protect yourself with your hands over your head; and,

  4. If outdoors, look out for falling masonry, glass and electric wires.

Even as we await the state’s enactment of the building code, and active participation in retrofitting the homes of middle and low income citizens, I would like to close this seven-part series by urging each citizen, each family to take responsibility for disaster by researching, planning and preparing for disasters. It could save your life.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur