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Haiti and T&T — One year later

Saturday, January 15, 2011

We recall the most devastating earthquake to occur in the developing western world in modern history—the event of January 12, 2010, in Haiti. A sober response to such an occurrence is to seek any positive outcome and, arguably, the most significant are the lessons that other similarly hazardous regions in the Carib-bean can learn in order to avoid a repeat of the unprecedented loss, from which Haiti will take a long time to recover, if at all.

Failure, analysis and needs

To summarise what we have learned from Haiti in terms of causes, we can state that the main reasons for failure were not due to lack of awareness of how to build earthquake-resistant buildings, but rather the lack of involvement of suitably qualified engineers in the design and construction of buildings, coupled with the lack of state enforcement of proper practices. In both instances this occurred due to a depth of poverty that resulted in the inability of owners to afford professional services, which led to the use of substandard materials and configurations. The absence of state enforcement was probably because of the relative cost of providing building inspectors, versus the cost of providing such public needs as security and basic utilities. This is what poverty does.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we do not have a parallel level of poverty but the aforesaid factors are nevertheless similar. Upon examination of the physical infrastructure of T&T, the most pressing needs have been summarised as: The training of the professional civil engineers in the assessment of existing structures, and the retrofit design of those structures; the identification of suitable materials for new construction; the development of national will for change via awareness programmes targeted at both decision-makers and the public; the development of schemes to encourage retrofitting; the quantitative measurement of the gap between where we are and need to be in terms of resilient communities; the development of a comprehensive action plan, and the budgeting and implementation of the action plan. Having identified these needs, where are we one year later?

Professional capacity
The training requirements of a civil engineer for earthquake-resistant design is an order of magnitude higher than for any other type of natural force and is even more so for existing buildings as opposed to new buildings. The particular requirement is expertise in the area known as “seismic nonlinear methods” which is typically a specialist field. The University of the West Indies (UWI) has made available to professional engineers an MSc course called Performance-Based Seismic Design and had its first cohort in January to April 2010. According to international standards, it is necessary for the professional civil engineers to sub- scribe to such training and acquire experience, if the requisite competence is to be gained, especially for the seismic assessment of existing buildings. Unfortunately, suitable avenues for the peer-reviewed or equivalent development of engineers in earthquake-resistant design in general are yet to be developed locally, though UWI recently began the comprehensive training of engineers at certain organisations.

New forms of construction

The form of construction that is prevalent in Haiti and that failed is nevertheless in principle an acknowledged good form of earthquake-resistant construction used in Europe and South America. It is called confined masonry, and in Haiti is typically used with a hollow concrete roof and flooring. Failure was primarily due to the use of substandard materials to build the confined masonry structures. The author assessed a sizeable three-storey hospital in the town of Leogane, where the earthquake’s epicentre was located, and where there was extensive collapse, yet there was very minor damage to this confined masonry structure since proper materials and supervision were apparently used.

In T&T, the prevalent form of construction is unreinforced masonry and is a poor form of construction for earthquake resist- ance. UWI has developed a document, based on local research, detailing how to retrofit unrein- forced masonry, which is commonly used for our housing. UWI has also developed a material called HEC (high energy composite) that can be used for both earthquake and hurricane resistant housing at a lower cost compared to the inadequate conven- tional construction, and that can be used in Haiti as well. The T&T Small Building Guide, available at the Bureau of Standards, shows how to build earthquake-resistant housing by the appropriate use of masonry blocks but the use of this guide has not become the standard practice.

Awareness and encouragement

To prevent what happened in Haiti from happening here, a change is required. The most significant element of such change is a change of mindset—a need to acknowledge our exposure, and develop a culture of seismic safety. The old adage that “it is better to be penny wise than pound foolish” is applicable here in the extreme for to be sure, when the earthquake comes, if we are not prepared T&T will be, in real economic effect and without exaggeration, unrecognisable. A national consultation arranged by the Seismic Research Centre of UWI was held and a stakeholder group was identified. It is however necessary to maintain momentum in order to offset the likely tendency for inertia and thus derail a noble and necessary endeavour. Such a group is needed to lobby the various decision-makers to get things done. It seems that the Ministry of Health will soon be embarking on a “safe hospitals programme” to ensure its readiness. It is to be commended and other public, private, and NGO bodies should follow its lead. Awareness programmes from the primary to Haiti and T&T—one year later tertiary education levels are needed and it is hoped that these organisations will take the initiative and become involved with the schools. To retrofit a structure a cost is involved. How is the homeowner to bear such a cost which can range from 10 to maybe 20 per cent or higher of the construction cost? Incentives for the home or property owner are therefore required and the banking and insurance sectors can take the initiative here, in partnership with the Government.

National seismic loss estimation
Ultimately, comprehensive planning and implementation requires a reasonable estimate at a national scale, and by town or community, of the expected losses given a range of scenarios. Though at present the region is roughly covered by the US Geological Survey’s Pager (Prompt Assessment for Global Earthquake Response) Project, the development of such a software tool is in progress at the Seismic Research Centre with critical technical data concerning our actual forms of construction supplied by the Department of Civil Engineering. When completed, the most scientific methodology will have been utilised for developing this tool, which is intended to be employed by the relevant state agencies culminating in wide-scale retrofitting via the national budget. In the interim, guidance can be acquired by the collective interdisciplinary judgment of the relevant local specialists.

The way forward
In terms of the required resilience, with a key performance indicator measured on a scale from 1 to 10, we are at a level of 2. The way forward is to complete the vision described at the aforesaid national consultation, and to ensure that the natural tendency for inertia is not allowed to take root. Given the particular socio-economic dynamics of T&T, it is imperative that the various chambers of commerce and NGOs get involved and utilise their influence, marketing, and organisational skill to support and remind the Government of the very real risk that exists. There is no better way to make sense of what happened to Haiti—her suffering is to be our wake-up call, and hopefully, assurance of a sustainable future for the children of T&T.

Richard Clarke
Head of Dept of Civil &
Environmental Engineering, UWI
Chair, T&T Structures
Codes Committee


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