Build bet­ter or suf­fer

Stabroek News Sunday - - LETTERS -

This week, in the af­ter­math of the Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­canes rip­ping up the Caribbean, some grip­ping videos and still pho­tos are mak­ing the rounds, and a stand­out in the lot is a BBC doc­u­men­tary on Hur­ri­cane Irma ti­tled ‘Apoca­lypse and the Af­ter­math’. (It may still be float­ing around on­line if you’re cu­ri­ous.) To the usual BBC stan­dard, it is a pow­er­ful piece of video, but this like many such treat­ments failed to make the point that in the Caribbean our con­struc­tion stan­dard, gen­er­ally, is fine for ev­ery­day liv­ing but to­tally in­ad­e­quate when, as in re­cent weeks, a Cat­e­gory 5 storm ar­rives.

Look at most of pic­tures of the de­stroyed build­ings and you will see that. Over the years, go­ing back to when hur­ri­canes were fewer and weaker than we are see­ing now, coun­try af­ter coun­try in the re­gion had be­come com­pla­cent. A weath­er­man at the Met Of­fice in Cay­man told me when he first came to work there in the 1980s that he was shocked to see the range of res­i­den­tial on­e­storey struc­tures, homes and busi­nesses, built flat on the ground – no stilts, no el­e­vated land. When he asked if they weren’t afraid of hur­ri­canes, peo­ple laughed, “We haven’t had a hur­ri­cane here in over 60 years.”

Nat­u­ral re­ac­tion: why pre­pare for some­thing that never comes? How­ever that rel­a­tively safe spell ended for the re­gion in 1988 when Hur­ri­cane Gil­bert ar­rived, and with Hur­ri­cane Ivan in 2004, leav­ing dam­age in the bil­lions, we moved into the cy­cle we now see: more pow­er­ful storms, com­ing more of­ten, ac­com­pa­nied by storm surges from the sea, and cre­at­ing de­struc­tion on a scale never imag­ined. There were in­ti­ma­tions back then and some took note – in Cay­man, for in­stance, fol­low­ing Ivan, there was a con­certed rush to move to metal roofs and for­mi­da­ble hur­ri­cane straps – but gen­er­ally the re­build­ing in the re­gion was done ac­cord­ing to ex­ist­ing build­ing codes so that, as a rule, we built back to the old stan­dard of the pre­vi­ously de­mol­ished.

Irma seems fi­nally to have driven the mes­sage home. In its wake, sev­eral promi­nent voices in the Caribbean have be­gun em­pha­siz­ing that our build­ing codes must be sig­nif­i­cantly strength­ened and rigidly en­forced (no more build­ing in­spec­tors look­ing the other way) if we are to avoid the dire con­se­quences we saw played out re­cently in places such as Bar­buda, Do­minica, the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands, and, now so vividly in Puerto Rico. These voices have in­cluded the Prime Min­is­ter of Do­minica, Roo­sevelt Sk­er­rit, and the St Lu­cian PM Allen Chas­tenet, with the lat­ter ap­pear­ing on US tele­vi­sion in a long in­ter­view. An­tigua rep­re­sen­ta­tive and syn­di­cated colum­nist Ron San­ders has been mak­ing the same call, and other voices, in­clud­ing Cari­com spokesman PM Keith Mitchell of Gre­nada, are now be­ing raised all over the re­gion with the same “build it bet­ter” mantra.

The ap­proaches be­ing mooted, while es­sen­tially hav­ing to do with more re­in­force­ment for struc­tures, in­clude other con­sid­er­a­tions. One of them, which I had some ex­pe­ri­ence with in Grand Cay­man, is to avoid roof over­hangs.

Aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing as they are, these pro­tru­sions are used by hur­ri­canes to ap­ply tremen­dous up­ward pres­sure on an oth­er­wise for­mi­da­ble roof such as the one I had in my house – as­phalt shin­gle tiles, ap­plied to oneinch ply­wood, nailed onto 1x6 pine, with the whole struc­ture on a base of 4x6 hard­wood rafters, four feet on cen­tre, at­tached to the side­walls by hur­ri­cane straps. The wind power in the Cat­e­gory 5 Ivan sim­ply got un­der the over­hang and ripped out a 20x20 sec­tion of my roof in one sin­gle heave.

On the other three sides of the house, where there was no sig­nif­i­cant over­hang, the roof stayed se­cure and the eight of us shel­ter­ing inside through the night re­mained safe.

Build­ing codes in the re­gion must move to a stan­dard that leaves no spa­ces or pro­tru­sions giv­ing an en­try­way for these pow­er­ful winds; zinc sheets on roofs, com­mon in the Caribbean, should be at­tract­ing more for­mi­da­ble tiedown meth­ods; some­thing that will hold in a 40mph wind, is use­less when the gale is com­ing at close to 200mph. I saw zinc sheets fly­ing about in Ivan like so much news­pa­per.

Sim­i­larly, we need to have en­gi­neers weigh in on the strength of glass be­ing used for windows. In Irma re­cently plate-glass windows in ho­tels and apart­ments were blown out; they pro­vide a lovely view in good weather; in a ma­jor storm they can and will kill you.

Re­gional build­ing codes should also dis­cour­age build­ing in a val­ley or on low-ly­ing land. It’s pic­turesque there, but in a hur­ri­cane with tor­ren­tial rain that area be­comes a lake. Build up the land, or build on stilts, or build some­where else. We en­joy a tra­di­tion of build­ing close to the beach, but we now have to re­quire that such struc­tures be el­e­vated to sur­vive storm surge. States in the US pro­hibit flat-to-the-ground struc­tures by the sea. We should do the same.

I raise this sub­ject as a lay­man, but clearly our tech­ni­cians and en­gi­neers have to guide us through the re­quire­ments, and we are also now hear­ing sugges­tions (fol­low­ing the loss of elec­tric­ity in these Caribbean is­lands) that per­mis­sion to build a home or busi­ness in a re­mote area, should come with the pro­viso that the owner must pro­vide ba­sic standby power for emer­gen­cies, and that a coun­try’s es­sen­tial struc­tures (hospi­tal, po­lice sta­tion, nurs­ing home, etc) should be sim­i­larly equipped with stand-by power which is tested reg­u­larly to en­sure readi­ness.

Of course, the cost of these im­prove­ments or con­trols will inevitably be­come a fac­tor, but all in­di­ca­tions are that, with cli­mate change, the storms are grow­ing stronger and more fre­quent, so the old cliché ap­plies: those who say “we can’t af­ford that stan­dard” need to un­der­stand that “you can’t af­ford not to have it”. As this is be­ing writ­ten, a catas­tro­phe mod­eller AIR World­wide has es­ti­mated that US in­sured losses re­sult­ing from Irma will range from $20 bil­lion to $40 bil­lion. For our Caribbean brethren in the hur­ri­cane belt, it is now a case of build bet­ter or suf­fer.

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