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