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How safe indeed are our homes?

Chartered structural engineer –– and, we may add, social activist –– Grenville Phillips II just recently advised that many modern storeyed houses across our Barbados landscape would not survive any major earthquake. The voluble reason given was quite simple: these structures are vulnerable to collapse owing to deviation from, or the ignoring of the Barbados Building Code.


Grenville Phillips II

Said Grenville Phillips II: “It is a national disgrace that strains the limits of irresponsibility that the Government of Barbados, against all expert advice, allowed an entirely unregulated 14-year building boom with respect to building standards.”

Given the vulnerability of these thousands of homes built for nearly a decade and a half, thousands more of their inhabitants would perish, or be seriously injured, by virtually guaranteed collapse in any mighty earthquake.

Lamented Mr Phillips, in the wake of the Thursday, July 16 series of earthquakes: “It is to Barbados’ tragic misfortune that it would not have cost any additional money to have constructed the life-saving shear walls that the Building Code specified.”

The idea and alleged practice of throwing the shear wall requirement of the Building Code out the window had landed us in the spot where, Mr Phillips pointed out, Barbados was now in the worst possible damage category for earthquakes and hurricanes of the United Nations’
Global Assessment Report (2013).   

To boot, more recent seismic studies of Barbados had shown the island to be significantly more at risk to major earthquakes than the very United Nations report had suggested, Mr Phillips tells us.

It would seem employing spit and polish to the facade of the structures instead had come to take precedence over soundness of construction. Paying overly attention to the smart look would apparently supersede cementing resilience to the ravages of natural disasters like the frightening and potentially life-taking earthquake.

It would seem too, as Mr Phillips, who has worked on many an engineering project throughout the Caribbean, has sought to impress us, that we have become content to embrace living in our ivory towers. We would rather dwell in seclusion from the harsh reality of the probable dangers with which we co-exist when the Caribbean, which is vulnerable to seismic hazards, is shaken violently.

An equally troubling matter that may be added to these discomforting revelations of Mr Phillips is the lack of response from officialdom in Barbados to this very day.

Is Grenville Phillips II correct or mistaken? As calypsonian Bumba would say, “we want to know; we want to know!”.

Executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), Ronald Jackman, reminded us too just after the five July 16 earthquakes, the 6.4 magnitude one of which was definitely felt in Barbados, that these shakings in the region were not unusual. The Caribbean, Mr Jackson would have us know, is seismically active.

And fellow CDEMA director Richard Roberts is of the view these recently felt tremors reinforce the need for much greater effort in building resilience to earthquakes in the region.

“It is not too late to learn from the lessons of Haiti,” he advises.

Compounding our laissez-faire attitude towards earthquakes is, of course, our contradistinguished sense of panic when the tremors do strike and the consequential talk of and obssession with tsunamis.

The effects of a tsunami are as perverse as they are unpredictable; but a sturdy building might survive it –– if it can first withstand a severe quake. Which brings us back to the concern of Grenville Phillips II –– and those of us who “want to know”.

Where indeed are we in respect of our apparently sidelined Building Code? Is it a fact we are not benefiting from its effectiveness and potential safety as a rule?

Come what may, we need a clearer picture of the efficacy of our building stock from the powers that be –– and, as well, a much more satisfactory response than the official admonition that we ordinary Barbadians need not panic!

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