Difficult Conversations – Stay and Live

Submitted by Grenville Phillips

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.

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.

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.

Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer. He can be reached at NextParty246@gmail.com

12 thoughts on “Difficult Conversations – Stay and Live

  1. Successive governments inability to properly maintain the road system, public buildings, machinery/equipment etc- is it unreasonable for the citizenry to question governments’ s quality control methods as it pertains to building standards, water standards etc? What are the professional associations like BAPE, Architects etc doing to inform the public? One notes of late we have seen the rise of BAMP.

  2. @ David BU
    Please do not put a heavier burden on the GoB than it is able to bear. Each profession and professional body has a responsibility to incorporate best practices when they do work in the Public and Private sectors. Societies are built on trust.. Continue this harping and you will get poor rakey persons offering themselves for public offices.

  3. Just throwing this out there but instead of re-enforcing desks??? teach students not to get under desks but run too walls , if they cant get out of the building . There is a much better chance of surviving because you usually have a leanto or v collapse giving voids rather than a pancake collapse in the center of room.

  4. My contribution to this topic. Let google be your friend.(page 106)
    If Indoors:
    DROP to the ground, take COVER by getting under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture, and
    HOLD on to the furniture to keep it over you until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building.
    Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture.
    Stay inside until shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Research has shown that most earthquake injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave.
    Be aware that electricity may go out or the sprinkler system or fire alarm may turn on.
    DO NOT use the elevators

  5. I am David basic training lol My suggestion was if the building were to collapse , When the twin towers came down lets face it there probably wasnt any voids but in a lot of cases there are and that is why people are found days later. I agree with Theo his is advise is the accepted strategy. but for me I am covering at a wall

  6. Earthquake emergency preparations should dentify the ring-beam-supported walls and have all in room practiced in taking cover under furniture together along there !!

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