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Jamaica on weak foundation - Experts say future may crumble under absence of nat'l building code

Published:Monday | February 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Arthur Hall, Senior Staff Reporter

( l - r ) Mcdonald, Chung

THE FAILURE of successive governments to pass legislation to introduce a national building code could put the lives of many Jamaicans at risk if the country gets hit by a major earthquake.

The concern was raised last week by experts at a Gleaner Editors' Forum as they discussed the lessons to be learnt from the Haiti earthquake disaster on January 12.

"Some of the buildings I see on the ground in Haiti were designed using proper building codes. We need to separate the buildings that fell down and compare them to Jamaica," said Franklin McDonald, coordinator of the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies.

"The (Haitian) government ministries, the palace and other buildings were built in the 1920s by the Americans to building codes that were in effect at the time," McDonald added, as he referenced the haunting images of hundreds of crumbled buildings in Port-au-Prince.

Many Jamaicans who saw those images have taken comfort in the claim that construction standards locally are higher than those in Haiti, but McDonald was quick to dispel that myth.

"We have buildings in Kingston that we know are problematic. One very close to us ... is well-known as a design that doesn't do well in earthquakes," McDonald said during the forum at The Gleaner's North Street, central Kingston, offices.

Executive director of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management, Ronald Jackson, also expressed concern about the absence of a national code.

"The fact that we have not legislated a national building code led to everybody's interpretation as to how they want to build," Jackson said.

Seemingly buried with history

A national building code has been on Jamaica's agenda since 1983 when a committee was first appointed to discuss the issue.

At that time, a code was developed but it was never enacted. Five years ago, the matter was put back on the front burner but it is yet to be presented for parliamentary approval.

"We are trying at this point to legislate the International Building Code. The engineers have done a lot of work on it since 2005, David Chung, president of the Jamaican Institution of Engineers, told the forum.

"It is in the Office of the Prime Minister and it is something we need to push through," Chung added.

He argued that, for years, professional engineers have been practising with modern building codes from around the world, but accepted that this was not enough.

"But we still need to legislate the building code because it is not by law you must do it, which is a danger. So some people will do it because of best practice, but other people won't because you are not required to," Chung said.