Building High-maintenance Tombs
From my experience in working among people in post-hazard environments, I can conclude that a stable house is the most prized possession. I have witnessed the grateful expressions of relief among those whose houses survived the tragic events. The contrasting near hopeless expressions of misery among those whose houses were destroyed were almost unbearable.
It was after my first deployment to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, that I finally understood that the primary purpose of an elected Government is to protect, as much as possible, the residents from foreseeable harm. It is for this reason why it is absolutely essential for each Government in the hazard prone Caribbean region to regulate the residential construction building industry in their country.
The Government of Barbados took the first step in trying to protect the public from certain post-hazard misery by publishing the Barbados National Building Code in 1993. That was a commendable achievement because at that time, Barbados was experiencing an economic recession and political turmoil. Fortuitously, the national building standard was in place for the unprecedented building boom that would commence one year later, in 1994.
It is a national disgrace that the Government of Barbados, against all expert advice, allowed an entirely unregulated 14-year residential construction building boom with respect to building standards. Of the thousands of houses built, almost all of them are vulnerable to collapse in a major earthquake. It is to Barbados’ tragic misfortune that it would not have cost any additional money to have constructed the life-saving shear walls that the Building Code specified.
By 2010, the legacy of substandard residential construction was firmly established in Barbados. At the start of that year, an earthquake in Haiti had reportedly killed approximately 300,000 people. Near the end of that year, tropical storm Tomas examined Barbados and damaged over 1,500 houses. Following the visit to same damaged houses, our Prime Minister reportedly made the following accurate observation: “I have to confess that I was flabbergasted at the fragility of the housing accommodation in Barbados.” He then reportedly recommended that it was “absolutely necessary to impose building standards in Barbados”, before adding the bewildering idea that a building code was “actively under consideration”. With such ministerial statements, a strong response was eagerly anticipated.
Approximately two years later, around the 20th anniversary of the initial publication of the National Building Code, the Government of Barbados took the strongest possible action unimaginable. Against expert advice, the Government abolished the only national standard designed to help builders construct a house that could survive earthquakes and hurricanes.
This act of utter stupidity placed Barbados in the unenviable position of being perhaps the only country on the planet that did not provide some type of structural building guidance to its residents. Even in the poorest country in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a homeowner could have found more relevant building standards than in Barbados. It is a national shame to which our apathy only encourages our Government to act more irresponsibly.
It simply does not make any sense – neither logical nor political. Both political administrations participated in the folly. Why would the BLP administration allow a 14-year unregulated building boom, despite repeated warnings of the fatal consequences? Why would the DLP administration, despite acknowledging the fragility of Barbadian houses, then withdraw the only national building standard that could protect Barbadian households, despite repeated warnings of the fatal consequences? Should Barbados experience the inevitable major earthquake tomorrow, then these two actions, in retrospect, would be justifiably deemed unforgivable.