A New Reality – Windstorms

A New Reality – Windstorms

Dr. Richard Clarke, senior lecturer at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) says one of the “biggest lessons” from 2017’s hurricane season is for the Caribbean to now “seriously consider the impact of global warming on the level of the hurricane, on the level of the wind speed we need to be designing for.”

Dr. Clarke was in Dominica as part of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency’s assessment of Hurricane Maria’s direct hit on the island as a category 5 hurricane. Dr. Clarke continued “If we have to go with only historical records – meaning prior to the increase in the effect of global warming – we would have under-designed the structure. If we want to seriously avoid the problems of the impact of the hurricane on people’s lives, we simply have to enforce the building codes”.

His statements echo those of Philmore Mullin, Director of the National Office of Disaster Services in Antigua, who, following the decimation of Barbuda by Hurricane Irma, stated that reconstruction on the sister isle must adhere to a more robust building code. He added that the present code had not been adhered to in their sister isle.

There lies the dichotomy; while the Caribbean has long weathered some of the worst hurricanes, the current infrastructure is no match for the frequency and severity of hurricanes fueled by a warming ocean.

This is exemplified by newspaper headlines immediately preceding and after Irma’s passage through Barbuda:

Two days later, when contact with Barbuda was re-established, the headline read:

In Dominica, losses from Hurricane Maria are expected to be “exponentially higher” than the EC$500 million in damage which was sustained by the island from Hurricane Erica just over a year ago. The island faces losses comparable to those of Hurricane Ivan which caused damage of more than 200% of Grenada’s Gross Domestic Product in 2004.


Photo: Zaimis Olmos/UNDP

Dominica has taken Maria’s lessons to heart and has incorporated a Build Back Better approach to its reconstruction plans. For housing, this includes:
⦁ repair and replacement to resilient standard
⦁ training that targets construction firms, builders and communities
⦁ raising awareness of home owners on safe housing construction
⦁ quality assurance for reconstruction by training building inspectors
⦁ review, strengthen and implementation of a housing reconstruction policy
⦁ updating and authorizing the building code for resilient construction practices and identifying and implementing strategies for raising compliance and defining agency responsibilities
⦁ raising awareness of hazards and disaster risk reduction among homeowners

Back at home, as far as disaster preparedness is concerned, Tobago, even more than Trinidad, faces special challenges. Both islands have suffered and are at risk from future earthquakes. Tobago is within the hurricane belt and while the chance of a major hurricane is not as prevalent as our island neighbours, even less severe storms and the unpredictability of a ‘wrong way’ hurricane such as 1999’s “Lenny”, can cause significant damage.

There is no national building code and a guideline for design and construction of small buildings developed by the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards was only published in 2006 and is only available in print at a cost from the Bureau’s office in Macoya.

Many Tobagonians do not have deeds for their land, and would not have received approvals for the design or construction of their buildings. This lack of proof of ownership makes it difficult to obtain loans to rebuild or to obtain insurance.

One positive for Tobago is the relative lack – comparatively speaking – of beachfront development. While coastal roads and bridges are at risk of damage from storm surge, most homes and commercial properties away from the south-west tourist hub, can concentrate on preparing for the inevitable earthquake, windstorm and landslides that follow.

Fortunately, the cost of retrofitting is not as high as one might think. UWI’s Department of Civil Engineering has published a manual for retrofitting single story unreinforced buildings using hexagonal mesh (aka chicken wire) and cement, that may help prevent building collapse during an earthquake which is freely available as a download at http://richardpclarke.tripod.com/hurri/manual.pdf

The vulnerabilities to windstorm can also be addressed. For a start, checks can be made during roof repairs to ensure that hurricane straps were installed and that installation was done correctly.

Preventing landslides is more expensive, particularly where the hillside has been cut for roads and buildings. Therefore the preservation of existing trees, shrubs and natural vegetation must become a priority, particularly in the dry season, and education and the penalties for setting an outdoor fire without a permit must be increased and enforced.

Despite the challenges of the current economic climate, we hope that the Ministry of Planning and Development, the Bureau of Standards and the Tobago House of Assembly can work to together to expedite revision of the guidelines for small buildings based on the new projected windspeeds and then make it freely available to all homeowners.

Any work done now in implementing strict inspection of all new buildings, retrofitting of existing structures and preserving the natural environment can go a long way to mitigating the widescale suffering now being experienced by our Caribbean neighbours when a disaster does come our way.