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Preparing for the worst – Some implications of a major earthquake on Trinidad & Tobago

Published Thursday February 11th,  2010

We have all looked on in horror at the scenes of destruction and human suffering, experienced by our Caribbean neighbours in Haiti as a result of the strong earthquake on 12th January.  Coming after the horror and attempts to assist, my mind shifted to the possibility of such a disaster in our country.  That prompted me to attend the seminar organized by the Association of Professional Engineers of T&T (APETT) and the T&T Contractors’ Association (TTCA) at Crowne Plaza on Wednesday 3rd February.  The seminar was excellent and such was the content that this week I am setting aside the other important matters with which I have been dealing.

The Structural situation

We heard several presentations from engineers and the President of the TTCA which set out the structural situation.  Some of the main points emerging there were that we are at significant risk because –

·         “An approved national building code does not exist at this time, designers use building codes with which they are familiar,” Darryl Thomson, a standards officer at the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS), said during his presentation.

·         “I would think generally we are not (prepared) and we need to seriously look at what we are doing and change the way we do business where the built environment is concerned,” President of TTCA, Mikey Joseph said.

·         Past-President of APETT, Mark Francois, told us of estimated multi-billion dollar damage to buildings if a natural disaster were to hit our main cities. “Potential building economic loss ... in Port of Spain was of the order of US$5 billion and in San Fernando US$6 billion” Francois said.  Francois went on to make 3 other important points – firstly, as a former British colony, our professionals had used British Standards up until the late 1960s, with the risk to us being that, since the British Isles are not prone, those standards did not take account of earthquakes.  As a result, he stated that major parts of our civil infrastructure, upon which we would rely in a disaster, were not designed or built to withstand earthquakes.  His example of the POS General Hospital being one such structure was sobering.  Secondly, he stated that building plans are being certified by engineers who do not posses the necessary qualifications in structural work and that he had done assignments to re-design some of those ‘certified’ plans.  Thirdly, he dealt with the well-known practice of engaging personnel employed with the regulatory authorities to draw plans for buildings and obtain permission.  This begs the question as to how could a public employee on such a ‘PJ’ fail to pass their own plans.

These quotes were drawn from the Trinidad Express story on Friday 5th February - [link].

The Seismic situation

The speaker on this aspect was Dr. Walter Salazar, Senior Research Fellow at the Seismic Research unit at UWI.  The three main points from his presentation were firstly, that our country is indeed at similar risk as Haiti in terms of a strong earthquake.  Secondly, the most likely areas for the strongest earthquakes are Tobago and the north-west peninsula of Trinidad, particularly Chaguaramas.  Thirdly, we are now overdue for that strong earthquake.

The disaster-preparedness situation

The head of our Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM), Col. George Robinson has confirmed, in light of natural public concerns, that our systems are in place to deal with such an earthquake.  Knowing the individual, there is little doubt in my mind that the necessary diligence has been applied to developing solid systems.

What is the likely financial impact?

My concerns as to our level of earthquake-preparedness are rooted elsewhere and that is at the level of the ‘financial safety-net’ upon which we would rely in the event of such a disaster.  Our low national savings rates have long been a concern of economists/financial experts.  We do not save enough money, in the view of these experts, to propel our country’s journey to the next level of national development.  My concern is the implied question of how we would cope with a destructive earthquake.

Add to that the fact that only a small fraction of our buildings are properly insured and a worrying element to the disaster-preparedness picture starts to emerge. 

Aside from the structural concerns and seismic risks as outlined above, there is a question as to the nature and extent of our financial safety-net.  Where will we find the money to rebuild?  Our lending institutions need effective systems to ensure that the properties they hold as security are properly insured. 

Such an earthquake would also damage our infrastructure – roads, water and electrical distribution systems, drains and so on.

As a consequence, even if your own property is undamaged or properly-insured, you could also suffer from the wider damage.  If your entire neighbourhood is severely-damaged, apart from the issue of loss of life and physical injury, there would be a negative effect on the value of your property. 

This issue affects everyone.

Some suggestions

I am suggesting that this is an issue which needs our urgent attention and that the private sector can take the lead.  The Association of Trinidad & Tobago Insurance Companies (ATTIC) and the Bankers’ Association of Trinidad & Tobago (BATT) can take a leadership position here.  One way forward could be for the insurance and banking sectors to agree, in their self-interest, a minimum code for design and construction with APETT and the TTCA.  That would be one way to set a benchmark in terms of proper standards for all financed or insured construction going forward.

In terms of existing privately-owned building owners, the Central Bank should consider adding a component on the importance of proper insurance to their National Financial Literacy Programme.

The other urgent requirement is the retro-fitting of our major public buildings to meet the challenge of these overdue earthquakes.

Thank you to APETT and the TTCA for organising this important intervention.

 

Afra Raymond is a Chartered Surveyor, Managing Director of Raymond & Pierre Limited and President of the Institute of Surveyors of Trinidad & Tobago.  Feedback can be sent to afra@raymondandpierre.com

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

What is the likely financial impact?

My concerns as to our level of earthquake-preparedness are rooted elsewhere and that is at the level of the ‘financial safety-net’ upon which we would rely in the event of such a disaster.  Our low national savings rates have long been a concern of economists/financial experts.  We do not save enough money, in the view of these experts, to propel our country’s journey to the next level of national development.  My concern is the implied question of how we would cope with a destructive earthquake.