Fri | Oct 19, 2018

Earth Today | Disaster pros urge relook at Jamaica’s earthquake, hurricane readiness

Published:Thursday | October 26, 2017 | 12:13 AMPetre Williams-Raynor

THE RECENT hurricanes that pummelled sections of the Caribbean, packing categories three to five punches, has pushed Jamaica's decades-long wait for a building act and enforceable, updated building code back into the spotlight.

Only now, disaster professionals say it is imperative that the island ensures its building stock, old and new, and overall infrastructure can withstand the likes of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose that left in their wake billions in damage and lives lost.

"It is a shame that we take so long to implement policies and legislation and appropriate regulations. There is no justifiable reason for it and we need to act with dispatch. However, given the Category 5 storms, it is very important for us to revisit, at risk of delaying, the provisions that we have, particularly for critical infrastructure," said Eleanor Jones, head of the consultancy firm Environmental Solutions Limited.

"We should, as a matter of urgency, examine what the implications would be if events such as those that occurred this year were to occur here. We should be asking ourselves, how our critical infrastructure would stand up ... our power, our ports, etc. And it is not just a government issue, it is also a private sector issue," she added.

Professor Simon Mitchell, head of the Earthquake Unit at the University of the West Indies (UWI), was of a similar mind.

Currently, he said, the building bill is weighted toward resilience to earthquakes, which are, too, a clear and present danger to Jamaica. However, earthquake-resistant buildings are not necessarily hurricane-resistant and this must be looked at, Mitchell said.

"Hurricanes aren't directly put in there in the same level that earthquakes are. If you have a direct hit of a Category 5 hurricane, many, many structures are not going to survive, as we have seen," he said.

"The problem is, wooden buildings (for example) stand up very well to earthquakes but are destroyed by hurricanes. Concrete buildings stand up less well to earthquakes but survive hurricanes. So given the two major threats we have, we have to make sure that whatever we are building is suitable for those. We have to make sure that the building code covers this," Mitchell added.


Infrastructure inventory


Like Jones, the professor said it is essential to take stock of existing infrastructure, while plans are made for the future.

"Just because we have a building code does not mean that our hospitals, our houses, our schools are going to survive, because they haven't been built to that standard," he said.

"So we do need a building code, but we also have to realise that just passing a building code is not going to make everything we have safe. And we have to think about not just building codes, but what we are going to do about things like electricity. Do we have to move our electricity underground which is more expensive, but, in the long term will be more beneficial?" Mitchell added.

Also critical, he said, is enforcement.

"We need to make sure that all the people in charge of making plans go through check that the buildings are built at the right standard. If you do not make sure that the right amount of steel goes into the concrete, that the concrete is the right mixture and things like that, we are going to have a problem," predicted Mitchell, also head of the UWI Department of Geography and Geology.

Extreme hurricanes are projected by scientists to be a more common occurrence in the coming years due to climate change while the island, which shares the Enriquillo Plantain Garden Fault that erupted to cause the earthquake devastation in Haiti in 2010, remains at risk of a similar event.

This is on top of the 200 tremors it experiences annually, among them the 4.2-magnitude event that reportedly occurred in mid-September off the South Coast of Treasure Beach and which was felt in not only St Elizabeth, but also St James, Hanover and St Andrew.