N Touch
Sunday 21 July 2019
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Get serious about building codes

The earthquake and aftershocks that Trinidad and Tobago (TT) experienced last week are a clear signal and vigorous reminder that the creation of building codes that address the earthquake experiences of the Caribbean is critical. Such measures should include a mandatory review of existing construction, starting with public sector buildings, to assess their readiness to handle the 'big one' that Dr Joan Latchman of the Seismic Research Centre, UWI has been soberly and insistently warning is overdue for these islands.

Latchman has been warning for years about the need to plan for the significant earthquake event that the geology of the region is inexorably building toward. The deadly earthquake that ravaged Haiti in 2010 destroyed buildings across the country, damaging or destroying an estimated 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings. The number of people killed by the deadly quake has never been properly settled and ranges between 100,000 and 300,000, staggering numbers by any estimate.

Thousands of those killed were buried in buildings that were improperly built or constructed with inferior materials. Haiti's Presidential Palace, the elaborate centrepiece of the country's governance, was built with too few support columns and too many open spaces, which created an impressive structure, but one that offered no resistance to the forces of the earthquake. Far too much concrete used in Haiti's collapsed buildings was light on cement, which made the structures fragile. Haiti had no building codes and even common-sense building practices weren't enforced with any enthusiasm. The price for that lapse was paid in human lives.

Last Tuesday's 7.3 magnitude earthquake in Venezuela registered 6.9 by the time it hit TT. Notable structural damage was registered on old churches and new construction managed by the Housing Development Corporation. The former is understandable. The latter, unacceptable.

When Sasha Scipio was trying to leave her HDC house in Rio Claro, the stairwell began to collapse behind her. It's hard to imagine a more unnerving thing. Terrified by the experience and distrustful of their own home, the Scipio family spent Tuesday night sleeping in their car.

TT currently has a small buildings guideline created by the Bureau of Standards, but there are no building codes in our laws, despite discussions on the matter since 2014. In the eight years since the Haiti disaster, nothing has been done about creating building codes for new construction and the evaluation of existing structures.

As challenging as creating, circulating and educating the public about disaster response can be, there is a greater task ahead in creating and legislating building codes to modern standards for natural disaster resistance, bringing them into law and then, most critically, creating a capable agency to enforce them.

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