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Straw castles

Last week Ernesto came and went with hardly a whisper from anyone, except perhaps for the frenzied supermarket shopping that occurred in the hours leading up to the expected time of impact.

It is clear from comments of Barbadians while the country was on standby those who could afford, and to whom preparation is important, took steps to ensure their “house was in order”. On the other hand, many who could not afford, or who just were not bothered, operated in the hope that the island would once again be lucky.

Thankfully, luck held to such an extent that Barbadians went out in their hundreds and enjoyed one major calypso show that the organisers chose not to postpone. Clearly Barbadians were not generally bothered by the approach of the tropical storm.

We recognise though that the approach of our emergency services ought not to mirror that of the general population, and if the statements from the hierarchy of the Department of Emergency Management are anything to go by, officials activated their response mechanism the way it was designed.

One week later though, we hope that these emergency planners have had the opportunity to review the efficiency with which the systems were activated, and that steps have already begun to close any gaps that were detected.

And there is one aspect of which we would invite the relevant authority to take note — the identification of citizens who consider themselves, or ought to consider themselves, and their households vulnerable, and who because of that operate on the basis of “what will be, will be”.

A man’s home is his castle, we are often told, but in Barbados many of these castles equate to straw in strong winds: they will be easily blown away. So while the owners or occupants will defend them to the hilt on normal days, and they have every right to, when bad weather is approaching they are not so quick to beat retreat.

What we question is whether our district emergency organisations have a map or database of these vulnerable properties and at the community level have the wherewithal to “encourage” abandonment when danger looms.

We also can’t help but wonder whether at the national level we have ever done any kind of analysis/inventory to advise our people on whether their “castle” will stand up to a tropical storm, a category 1 hurricane, or a category five blast.

As we review the response of the population to the approach of these systems it is clear that the decision of many to ride them out at home is based on nothing more than sentiment — “My house good man!”. But there is no objective data to tell them if, based on age, design, wear, materials used, etc, an 80 kilometre wind gust is likely to leave them roofless.

We are willing to bet than when choosing windows, roof cover and even design, very few consumers enquire about their capacity in high winds. We tend to be more interested in “the look”. Which householder will ask about the structural difference between using plywood and pine for “close boarding” a roof? What about the difference between asphalt shingles and galvanised sheets? What of the comparative strengths of single hung and double hung sash windows when exposed to gale force winds? What’s the strongest winds louvred glass windows will withstand? Will one-foot wide glass “pop” more quickly than three-foot wide?

We are reasonably sure that if all our homes were exposed to this kind of analysis many of them would be abandoned long before a hurricane hits. Is such an analysis the responsibility of Government, the engineering community or both? Or, perhaps entirely that of the householder?

In many ways we blame our people for not taking hurricane preparedness seriously, but for many of them preparation is abstract, except for gathering canned foods and some biscuits just before the shop closes.

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