On 1 August 2007, the Interstate-35 West bridge collapsed in Mississippi, killing 13 people and injuring 145. During the news reports, Engineers were criticized for not being explicit enough in their warnings about the “structurally deficient” rating of the bridge.
Two months after the bridge collapsed, I wrote an article explicitly warning about the vulnerability of Barbadian houses to hurricanes.
In 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti, reportedly resulting in over 300,000 deaths. Approximately 1,300 schools collapsed or were unusable. The following year (2011), earthquake design information was updated for the Caribbean. This update automatically made most multi-storey concrete buildings in the Caribbean, significantly under-designed for earthquakes.
STAY AND SHELTER.
After surveying all primary, secondary and tertiary schools in Barbados in 2012, I warned that most were likely to collapse during a major earthquake as a result of the new standards, and sub-standard construction practices. The solutions were obvious. New school buildings should be economically designed to the new standard, and existing school buildings should be economically strengthened.
Earlier this month (March 2021), the Government confirmed its earthquake-safety protocols. Our students must remain in their classrooms during an earthquake, and shelter under their desks. That is good advice for occupants of buildings specifically designed for major earthquakes. Sheltering under a desk can protect occupants from falling ceiling tiles and other light-weight debris.
STAY AND DIE.
To ask our students to stay in the classroom of a building likely to collapse, does not seem like wise advice.
Approximately 17,000 students died in collapsed schools during the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. That proved that for buildings not designed for earthquakes, the advice actually means stay-and-die. Their deaths should not be in vain. The Government is advised to review this earthquake-safety protocol, while there is still time.
I was elated to learn that the Government was upgrading school buildings before the COVID-19 interruption. My elation turned to familiar frustration on learning that the upgrades were merely cosmetic, instead of structural. The Government is advised to critically review its building priorities.
Based on my decade-long advocacy on trying to reduce the risk of our schools collapsing during earthquakes, I do not expect the Government to change their stay-and-shelter earthquake protocols. However, our students must be given a fighting chance to survive when their classroom block collapses.
The obvious solution is to strengthen all desks in the classroom, so that they can collectively support the weight of the falling concrete slab(s) above it. The Government is strongly advised to consider the better alternative of economically strengthening the school buildings, so that our students can honestly be told to stay and live.