Can Ja buildings survive quake?

In
the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s big and destructive earthquake, it was an
article of faith in Jamaica that a seismic event of that magnitude was unlikely
to leave the level of damage that was wrought upon Port-au-Prince.

After all, Jamaica, compared to
Haiti, is far too sophisticated and its engineering and construction processes
too advanced for our buildings to crumble in similar fashion. The experts,
however, are warning against such smugness.

The consensus that emerged from a
forum hosted recently by this newspaper is that we really don’t know what could
happen in the event of an earthquake measuring 7.4 and having characteristics
similar to the one that killed an estimated 230,000 people in Haiti.

But what is more likely to be
surprising to many people here is that there is no national building code in
Jamaica. So, it is unlikely that there is uniformity in the engineering or the
strength of our buildings.

“The fact that we have not legislated
a building code leads to everybody’s interpretation of how they want to
build,” noted Ronald Jackson, head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness
and Emergency Management.

Sobering
information

Perhaps more sobering in the
context of that fact was the observation of Franklin McDonald, coordinator of
the Institute of Sustainable Development at the Mona campus of the University
of the West Indies.

“Some of the buildings I see
on the ground in Haiti,” he remarked, “were designed using proper
building codes.” Additionally, McDonald pointed out, there are building
designs in Kingston that are known be problematic.

Which brings us to our two
fundamental recommendations for immediate action in Jamaica’s preparation for
its next big earthquake, which everyone agrees is inevitable. We just do not
know when it will happen.

First, now that Haiti’s disaster
has concentrated minds, we should use the opportunity to review the structures
that survived the Haitian calamity and how the experience of Port-au-Prince
might inform any building code that is adopted by Jamaica.

This, however, must not be a
long-drawn, foot-dragging process. Substantial work has already been done on a
code for Jamaica. It ought to be possible to complete a relevant law, in
relatively short order, and have it passed by Parliament. Indeed, some engineers
insist we do no more than legislate the current international building code.

Willingness
to enforce law

Importantly, we must be willing to
enforce the law and be ready to act against people who breach the code,
including those who create informal settlements. These we tend to ignore for
fear of offending the ‘poor’, who account for large blocks of votes. We,
however, prefer to protect their safety.

The second matter is related to Mr
McDonald’s observation, but taken a bit further. We propose, be it at all
feasible, that Jamaica undertakes an audit of all its major buildings to determine
the quality of their engineering and construction and how they are likely to
behave in the event of a major quake. That, perforce, would require a review of
design plans, and perhaps how the buildings performed during our last
significant earthquake in 1993.

This is something which private
owners, especially of large commercial properties, should have an interest in
and may themselves begin to do.

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