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Jamaica still not earthquake ready

BY JANICE BUDD Associate Editor — Sunday buddj@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 13, 2011    

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Jamaica still not earthquake ready

ALL eyes have been on Haiti this week, as the world remembers the horror of the Haitian capital being reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes by a massive earthquake one year ago.

Coincidentally, this week is also being observed as National Earthquake Awareness week in Jamaica, but one local disaster management official says a limited budget has constrained the states' efforts to prepare for a major seismic event.

The unease which followed the shock that reverberated — literally and figuratively — from Haiti that fateful January evening, dampened somewhat over the course of 2010.

Toward the end of the last year, two relatively minor tremors reawakened local awareness which the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) hopes to capitalise on this week in its programme of activities.

The lessons coming out of Haiti pointed to the need for government facilities to be sound and to ensure that the disaster mitigation and response mechanisms of the state are able to reduce death and destruction, and get the country back up and running in the shortest possible time.

Director General of the ODPEM Ronald Jackson said one year later some work has been done to this end, but it hasn't happened fast enough and there is still much to be done.

"Frankly, I think the movement has been very slow, not at the pace we would have wanted. That is against the background that when Haiti occurred, we were already going through a very tight budgeting process, so not much was in our respective budgets to make the kind of changes identified." he said.

However, he said some funding has been accessed from donors, which enabled the ODPEM to offer firefighters additional training in earthquake search-and-rescue methods.

Also, he noted that some money was found to strengthen the monitoring capabilities of the Earthquake Unit at the University of the West Indies. The disaster mitigation agency is seeking partners to come on board to help this effort, especially since, as recently reported in the Observer, the money-challenged unit was struggling with inefficient or obsolete equipment.

He explained that the Pan American Health Organisation has been helping the health ministry in doing its 'safe-hospital' assessment, with a few hospitals being looked at to determine whether their structures are sound enough to stand up to a serious tremor.

Jackson acknowledged, however, that the country hasn't made many strides in starting the critical structural assessment programme for other government buildings housing ministries, agencies and essential services.

The ODPEM director general also admitted to continued concerns about construction standards.

"I don't think I would say I have any fears, I will say that I do have concerns. The concerns that I have really stem from the fact that a lot of construction has occurred over the years, and not under the watchful eyes of our building inspectors."

He added that while Jamaica does construct more solidly than Haiti, especially with the types of materials local contractors use, there is still a lot that is unknown, especially regarding critical structures such as government buildings.

"We don't know in terms of whether the larger structures are built to any seismic standards. These standards change, as engineers will tell you, every five years. So we have to look at whether any of the larger buildings are built to any type of seismic code in terms of the type of foundations that may be necessary in situations of high ground movement." the ODPEM director general added.

In the weeks of near-hysteria that followed some 52 aftershocks in Haiti and tremors elsewhere in the Caribbean, Cabinet issued instructions for the drafting of legislation to establish a national building control framework for Jamaica.

But one year later, Parliament is yet to legislate the national building code which has been in development for over two decades. The current guidelines are to be found in the old Kingston and St Andrew Building Act (1883) and Parish Councils Building Act (1908), which essentially allow individual and varied interpretations as to how to build, and should have been repealed.

Last year, following the horrors of Haiti, the Jamaica Institute of Architects raised a red flag about how much construction is done in the country without the input of an architect.

It's a point that still resonates with Jackson:

"We don't know where corners were cut... the kind of engineering designs for the building plans, were they were followed to a 't'? Those are the kinds of things I can't speak to, and really would be dependent on whether the construction site was visited by a building inspector periodically and approved as the work continued," he explained.

"In the government sector, we really want to get to the point where our main sectors health, education, to name a few, are able to begin the process of doing some structural assessment, to look at the extent of vulnerability of the health sector infrastructure and also to begin the process of looking at some of the schools across Kingston and St Andrew which we know are perhaps the most prone to the seismic risk."

He said he is fully aware the ODPEM/government won't be able to do everything, but wants to begin to prioritise public sector facilities according to their locations and identified structural or other weaknesses. He hopes the legislating of the new building code will finally be realised in 2011.

Jackson says in the year since Haiti's catastrophic magnitude-7 quake, his agency has tackled the issue of decentralisation of response apparatus with some success.

"The lessons out of Haiti also spoke to the importance of having decentralised teams that are well-trained and that can operate outside of a central coordination (unit) until that central coordination is established," he explained.

This year with environmental awareness week, the ODPEM is promoting a national focus on earthquake readiness.

He said this will have to happen in a strict financial environment given the current global economic crisis, but doesn't feel this should hinder the country trying to make a start.

"What I am concerned about is whether there is enough financial capacity at the level of the average Jamaican to address some of the issues identified," he noted that the country still has to look at an appropriate warning system.

This week, Jackson said, is a period for ramping up awareness levels, so people can do whatever they can to protect themselves.

So how would Jamaica fare if there were an earthquake on the anniversary of the one that wrecked Haiti last year? The Observer put the question to Jackson:

"That's a very difficult question to answer in terms of putting it on a scale, because there are so many variables. I can say that while we have a fire service, we have a military and we have hospital and other health sector workers, who are fully prepared to apply the training that they have, with the limited resources they have available to them, as it relates to equipment and tools that they would require, we are far off the mark," said the ODPEM head.

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