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Hurricane Matthew lends urgency to Jamaica’s building act

Published:Wednesday | October 12, 2016 | 4:10 PMPetre Williams-Raynor
Young men whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew peer out of a tent as they awaken for the day in the courtyard of a school where they have sought shelter, in Port Salut, Haiti, Monday.
Girls hold hands as they help each other wade through a flooded street after the passing of Hurricane Matthew in Les Cayes, Haiti, Thursday, October 6, 2016. CRIFF has announced a US$20m insurance payment for Haiti under that country's cyclone insurance policy.

Hurricane Matthew - packing winds up to 145 miles per hour and leaving a trail of bodies, levelled buildings and displaced people in its wake - has brought into sharp focus the urgent need to have Jamaica's long-awaited building bill passed.

This is to ensure that the Jamaica National Building Code - the technical work for which was completed and handed over to the government in 2009 and then recently updated - is made mandatory.

Electrical engineer Roosevelt DaCosta, who led the technical work on the code - modelled off the International Building Code of the International Codes Council of the United States - and who was involved in its recent update out of the Bureau of Standards, said the island is almost there.

"The building bill has undergone several drafts since it was tabled in Parliament in November of 2011 by the outgoing prime minister then, Bruce Golding. The latest draft is a 2016 draft ... As I understand it, the Government wants to have the Chief Parliamentary Counsel finalise that draft and bring it to debate in the shortest possible time," he told The Gleaner.

Minister of Local Government and Community Development Desmond McKenzie was unavailable to comment earlier this week.

However, DaCosta revealed that progress on the bill had been not been hampered by the Government.




"Both governments have displayed a lot of urgency and support for the building bill. It is the stakeholders and their concerns that have held back the bill coming through to Parliament to debate and passing. However, I think we are getting there," he said.

"The subsequent changes have been occasioned by stakeholders' comments and dissatisfaction with elements of the draft. As we speak, I think the final changes are being made and there are still a couple of sections that we were hoping they would get corrected," DaCosta added.

Noel DaCosta, a chemical engineer and the man in whose tenure as head of the Jamaica Institute of Engineers is found the genesis of work on the code, concurred with the electrical engineer.

"I was invited to a meeting two weeks ago by a group from the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) ... where, fortunately, many of the stakeholders involved (with) the building bill were also present," he said.

"I am now in dialogue with the people from the Ministry of Local Government where the building code falls and are looking at some of the impediments. I think they are moving with a bit more dispatch. I am a little more optimistic now based on recent discussions," he added.

According to the electrical engineer, impediments include the definitions of two categories of persons.

"The first definition has to do with building professionals. These are people who are registered under professional acts - architects, engineers, surveyors, those sorts of persons. The second has to do with a much larger group involving people like draftsmen, contractors, tradesmen of various sorts, and they have to be licensed in order to carry out certain code activities," he explained.

"There has been some level of disagreement on these two definitions and the work that each party is supposed to be doing. For instance, previous drafts - up to the 2016 - is empowering non-professional people to do building design under the Residential Small Building Code, which means they can design buildings up to 300 square metres," he added.

The professionals who have worked on the code, he said, hold a different view of things.

"We believe that could seriously impact public safety because you can have complex buildings in that size. The code lists about 18 different things that make a building complex (such as those shaped like arches or domes) and so we are saying that, yes, the simple, non-complex building can be designed by those people as they have been doing from ever since," he said.




"When it comes to the complex building, they are not able to properly analyse forces and compensate for them, and so there are real dangers that people will face," he added.

Meanwhile, Professor Simon Mitchell, acting head of the Earthquake Unit, said there is no downplaying the need to have the act in place.

"We do need to get it passed so that when we are putting in new construction, it will stand up to heavy hurricanes like Matthew, earthquakes, that sort of thing," he said.

Mitchell also underscored the need for periodic updates and enforcement of the code.

"If you look at Chile, Japan, what you find is that when they have an event, they go back and revise the building code. That is what we need to do to make the building code most useful," he told The Gleaner.

"Just having a building code is not much use because, one, there is a lot of buildings that already exist; and number two, unless we enforce it, it doesn't make sense you have it. One of the things we are not very good at in this country is enforcement," he added.