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Peter Espeut | Jamaica has not learnt from Gilbert

Published:Thursday | September 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A house that slid into the Atlantic Ocean in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, Monday.

I don't know about you, but I was expecting Hurricane Irma to wreak much more havoc and damage in the US state of Florida than it actually did. I have memories of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 smashing structures like tinder, and killing dozens of people. A lot of trees fell in Florida last week, but very few roofs were blown away. And there were very few deaths. The housing and commercial infrastructure remained largely intact.

Should Hurricane Irma have struck Jamaica, I wonder if we would have fared as well. I doubt it, and I will explain why.

As I watched the US media coverage of the aftermath of the storm, an interviewer asked a mayor the question that was on my mind: Why did your city fare so well in this powerful hurricane? The answer nearly blow me away, and I paraphrase: "We learnt from Hurricane Andrew. We strengthened our building code, and we enforced it!"

In 1907, Kingston and surrounding areas crumbled during a huge earthquake. Largely built of brick and mortar, old Kingston had to be rebuilt using new methods, and that is when block and steel first came to Jamaica.

What Jamaica really needed was a new building code to regulate the construction industry in Jamaica, and one was prepared by the colonial government with provisions to allow buildings to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. But for whatever reason, it was never promulgated as law. The building code was treated as a suite of recommendations - as guidelines for best practice. Upscale construction firms usually followed its prescriptions, although it was not unknown for corners to be cut; but no laws were broken, because Jamaica's building code did not have the force of law.

In any case, the vast majority of Jamaican structures were built by small contractors and tradesmen who would never have known the code.


Outdated codes


After the devastating hurricanes of 1951 (Charlie) and 1988 (Gilbert), adjustments were made to Jamaica's building code, but even today in 2017, Jamaica has no enforceable building code. A new building code has been prepared, but has not yet been promulgated. And every day, new structures go up that do not conform to best practice.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida modified their building code to require buildings to be able to withstand Category Five wind strengths. As in Jamaica, building plans (including engineering drawings) have to be approved after site inspections before construction can begin; and during construction, inspectors have to visit and verify that what is being built adheres to the approved drawings. It is because of this procedure that Hurricane Irma did not cause as much damage as might have been expected.

I must point out that in Florida, not even a concrete slab can be erected without site inspection and approval. It is unheard of for small contractors to build without going through the proper process.

As I look up at St Benedict's Heights, Sufferers Heights and Mud Town, and look down on Moonlight City, Kintyre and Riverton City - and at the hundreds of squatter communities and informal settlements across Jamaica - it is clear that neither building code nor approval process is being followed. It is clear that should any Irma-like storm visit Jamaica, we would not fare as well as Florida.

Even where permits are sought and granted, I am informed that very few inspections take place, because there are too few inspectors to begin with, and there may be incentives not to visit, or to 'see and blind'.

Why is it that 110 years after the 1907 earthquake, and with 55 years of political Independence under our belts, Jamaica still does not have a legally binding building code? I was inclined to believe that successive governments were unwilling to pass laws to bind the powerful private sector that has tremendous lobbying power; building costs would go up, making local and foreign investments more expensive.

Those foreign construction companies building hotels and other structures would have even more regulations to follow; it is possible that one of the features attracting them to Jamaica (in addition to weak environmental regulations, and lax labour laws) is the absence of an enforceable building code.

It is also true that should compliance with a building code be mandatory under criminal penalty, the poor (who cannot afford architects and engineers) would suffer the most. Postponing promulgating a building code may be interpreted as 'loving the poor'.

But Jamaica cannot afford a major disaster from hurricane or earthquake. The best time to have a strong building code is just after the disaster, to guide the rebuilding. We missed that boat.

Sadly, we can expect major damage in the event of an unwelcome visit.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to