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EDITORIAL - Can our buildings survive a major quake?

Published:Wednesday | February 10, 2010 | 2:00 AM

In the immediate aftermath of Haiti's big and destructive earthquake, it was an article of faith in Jamaica that a seismic event of that magnitude was unlikely to leave the level of damage that was wrought upon Port-au-Prince.

After all, Jamaica, compared to Haiti, is far too sophisticated and its engineering and construction processes too advanced for our buildings to crumble in similar fashion. The experts, however, are warning against such smugness.

The consensus that emerged from a forum hosted recently by this newspaper is that we really don't know what could happen in the event of an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale and having characteristics similar to the one that killed an estimated 200,000 people in Haiti.

But what is more likely to be surprising to many people here is that there is no national building code in Jamaica. So, it is unlikely that there is uniformity in the engineering or the strength of our buildings.

"The fact that we have not legislated a building code leads to everybody's interpretation of how they want to build," noted Ronald Jackson, head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.

Sobering information

Perhaps more sobering in the context of that fact was the observation of Franklin McDonald, coordinator of the Institute of Sustainable Development at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.

"Some of the buildings I see on the ground in Haiti," he remarked, "were designed using proper building codes." Additionally, McDonald pointed out, there are building designs in Kingston that are known be problematic.

Which brings us to our two fundamental recommendations for immediate action in Jamaica's preparation for its next big earthquake, which everyone agrees is inevitable. We just do not know when it will happen.

First, now that Haiti's disaster has concentrated minds, we should use the opportunity to review the structures that survived the Haitian calamity and how the experience of Port-au-Prince might inform any building code that is adopted by Jamaica.

This, however, must not be a long-drawn, foot-dragging process. Substantial work has already been done on a code for Jamaica. It ought to be possible to complete a relevant law, in relatively short order, and have it passed by Parliament. Indeed, some engineers insist we do no more than legislate the current international building code.

Willingness to enforce law

Importantly, we must be willing to enforce the law and be ready to act against people who breach the code, including those who create informal settlements. These we tend to ignore for fear of offending the 'poor', who account for large blocks of votes. We, however, prefer to protect their safety.

The second matter is related to Mr McDonald's observation, but taken a bit further. We propose, be it at all feasible, that Jamaica undertakes an audit of all its major buildings to determine the quality of their engineering and construction and how they are likely to behave in the event of a major quake. That, perforce, would require a review of design plans, and perhaps how the buildings performed during our last significant earthquake in 1993.

This is something which private owners, especially of large commercial properties, should have an interest in and may themselves begin to do.

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