Following the collapse of the Mississippi bridge on 1st August 2007, I heard some politicians try to place the blame on Engineers. They noted that the “structurally deficient” rating of the bridge by Engineers was not an explicit enough warning of the risk of its collapse. I do not wish to be the subject of a similar claim in Barbados.
We have squandered the past 12 years of unprecedented building in Barbados. With a published building code in 1993, and with billions of dollars invested in construction materials over the past 12 years, we should have made at least some attempt to secure that investment. Regrettably it is all at risk of being turned into rubble following the first major hurricane or earthquake.
I am gravely concerned about the structural condition of houses. Over the past 12 years, we have allowed substandard construction of houses, with the sorry excuse that compliance with the Barbados National Building Code will result in a significant increase in construction costs. The excuse is untrue.
Building designers and contractors in Barbados are already designing and building houses that exceed most of the structural requirements of the Code. However, they are ignoring critical safety requirements that can leave the houses vulnerable to wind and earthquake forces. Compliance with some of these critical aspects will not add to the construction cost at all. Actually, a house built to the minimum structural requirements of the building code will cost less than how most building contractors currently build houses in Barbados.
Engineers are normally accused of being self serving when they lobby for enforcement of the building code. However, it should be known that Engineers are not needed to check compliance with the building code – that can be done by a technician. Actually, any of the technicians at the front desk of the Town Planning Department can be trained to do carryout these checks, and I am willing to provide the three hours of training that is necessary to train these technicians pro bono publico and at any time.
It should also be known that no special legislation or additional government department is required to make sure that people build their houses properly. Today, if we have the courage, we can take the first step in securing the billions of dollars worth of investment, which is currently unsecured and vulnerable to being wasted.
Let me now be explicit. The last 1-in-100 year storm Barbados experienced was over 100 years ago, therefore we are long overdue for a major hurricane and can expect one this year. If we continue on our present course we are simply planning to experience a needless national disruption and disaster.
If we are struck by a major hurricane tomorrow, we can expect approximately 75% of our houses to be severely damaged. There will be national disruption. Emergency services personnel will abandon their duties if their homes are damaged and their families are exposed. Employees will abandon their responsibilities if their homes are damaged and their families and neighbours are exposed.
The economy is at risk of grinding to a halt. Mortgage companies will expect owners of damaged homes to honour their mortgage payments. Insurance companies may go bankrupt. It is all so easily avoidable, but those who were responsible and who have been repeatedly warned over the past 12 years have neither harkened nor heeded, and so we all seem destined for unnecessary and miserable sufferings.
Is it too late? No. Since we have not yet been struck, the Government still has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in this critical issue, and I not only strongly recommend in my professional capacity, but I plead as a citizen of Barbados, that the Government does so with dispatch!
Grenville W Phillips II, Chartered Structural Engineer