(Trinidad Guardian) T&T will be completely devastated should a massive earthquake strike since 90 per cent of our buildings are structurally unsafe. So said Shyankaran Lalla, chairman of the National Building Code Committee, yesterday, after a 3.8 magnitude earthquake struck in the Gulf-of-Paria, off the coast of north Trinidad.
Lalla, in a telephone interview, said although the earthquake was minor it should be a cause for concern for citizens as many buildings in T&T were not earthquake-resistant. In fact, he said, “Ninety per cent of our buildings are structurally unsafe.”
Lalla, a quality control consultant, said T&T is not ready to face a major earthquake and should begin taking note of seismic activity around it. “We in Trinidad are very fortunate not to have a major earthquake with loss of life. However, we should pay attention to these small earthquakes to prepare ourselves and disaster preparedness in the event of a major earthquake,” he said.
The National Building Code Committee, which Lalla heads, was established in April under the Housing Ministry. It has been mandated to develop a national building code. Lalla said the committee was still awaiting Cabinet’s approval of its budget request to begin preparing the code which would formalise building standards locally. He said the committee was doing ground work while it awaits funding. He noted with concern that recently the Fire Services deemed several public buildings unsafe and shut them down.
Lalla urged that a structural assessment of public buildings to be undertaken because of the high frequency of earthquakes occurring around the world. He pointed to recent earthquakes recorded in Guatemala and Burma as examples that should be noted locally. “We are not 100 per cent prepared. There is still a lot of work to be done to come up to standard. “We need to pay attention to these warning signs that we are getting—and that is exactly what they are. We have an opportunity to prepare ourselves for disasters. We have witnessed the damage in Haiti. We need to pay close attention.”
While there were no reports of damage after yesterday’s earthquake Lalla said close attention should be paid to any small cracks on buildings. “We throw caution to the wind when we see a small crack and when we have these types of events one has to check to ensure that there is not damage because overlooking a small crack could result in major damage when another earthquake happens,” he said.
Dr Walter Salazar, research fellow in earthquake engineering and engineering seismology at the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre said yesterday’s earthquake, which was recorded at 8.08 am, had a depth of 98 kilometres.
The earthquake, he said, occurred in the subduction zone and because of its depth the shock was felt in a wide area. “We have received reports from Port-of-Spain, St Joseph and Diego Martin. There were no reports from Central or South Trinidad. It was mainly in the north part of T&T. It was a minor earthquake. We are in a very, very active subduction zones. The Caribbean region is one of the most active seismic regions,” he said. Salazar agreed with Lalla that T&T is not ready for a massive earthquake.
“We are not prepared because my impression is the quality of construction is not earthquake (proof,) it is not sufficient. The quality is low,” he said. Salazar said T&T is poised for a major earthquake since there has been a lengthy period from our last major recorded earthquake in 1766. “We would not know the exact time of the earthquake. We can expect a big shock in the subduction zone every 700 years, but we only have history of 500 years. The records are too short,” he said.
Salazar said the records are reflected in the quality of construction. “If you had more frequent earthquakes you would have better quality of construction to prepare for it. We don’t have it so we do not prepare for it,” he added.
Lalla agreed with this statement, since he said, earthquake-proofing is not a major consideration in construction locally.
Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) CEO Dr Stephen Ramroop said while state agencies were prepared to deal with earthquakes, citizens were not.“If you ask, in your newspaper, ‘Who has a disaster plan?’ You will find that none has a disaster plan,” Ramroop said.
Joint Consultative Council president Afra Raymond agreed that T&T was not ready for an earthquake. He added that “some of our main buildings are not built to provide safety in terms of earthquake.” Raymond pointed to the San Fernando General Hospital and Port-of-Spain General Hospital as two critical buildings that are in need of earthquake proofing.
“They (the hospital) were built in colonial times. They were built under British building codes which do not cater for earthquakes because there are no earthquakes in the British islands. The buildings need to be retro-fitted so they can function safely in the event of an earthquake,” he said.
Raymond commended Government for establishing the National Building Code Committee which would produce the first legally enforceable building code. He urged Government to support the committe and “get the code finalised and implemented for the health and safety of our citizens and the health safety of our country.”