Seismologists warn T&T PM over hospital site

(Trinidad Guardian) Construction of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s prized $1.5 billion Couva Children’s Hospital is in jeopardy as seismic and structural experts have called for all work there to be aborted. This is because the hospital and multi-training facility is being built near the Central Range earthquake fault line, which experts say is in danger of being hit by a major earthquake of 7.5 magnitude or above. Seismologist Dr Joan Lutchman, of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Seismic Research Centre, speaking with the T&T Guardian in a telephone interview on Wednesday, confirmed that the present location of the hospital is in “close proximity” to the fault line and suggested the construction should be halted.

Lutchman said a new location should be sought to avert any untoward incident in future. “It would be the wise decision to put the construction on hold and examine all the considerations with the various expertise available before a final decision is made on it (the hospital’s location),” she said. Lutchman said construction of any building near a fault line is something to be concerned about, but it is increasingly serious when it involves an essential facility such as a hospital. “It is a very serious situation. It is in the interest of any society that is in a zone where you have significant seismic activity to put every measure in place to ensure that your hospital is functional after a major earthquake,” she said. The hospital, which is earmarked for construction off the southbound lane of the Solomon Hochoy Highway, Couva, near the Preysal Interchange, is being built through funds provided in a concessionary US$150 million loan from the Government of China.

Construction of the hospital and burns treatment centre began in March by Shanghai Construction Group and is being constructed under supervision of the Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) as a Design-Finance-Construct model. Thus far, lands have been cleared and soil testing is being conducted on the site. Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan, speaking with the T&T Guardian on Wednesday night at Rienzi Complex, Couva, said he was made aware of the situation by seismologists and had alerted the Prime Minister. Khan said he has asked for a written report and an official letter so he could discuss the matter with Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal and Persad-Bissessar. “Just yesterday (Tuesday) I spoke to the Prime Minister on it and she told me to see how best I can glean that information as fast as possible,” Khan said. “So I am hoping that they will send it to me as fast as possible. I will also have to send it to Dr Moonilal who is in charge of Udecott. We have to deal with that as fast as possible.”

The minister said it was a matter of concern, but, “I have not got a letter in writing as yet, it is just a matter of verbal. I do not want to act on verbal information. I have not seen anything. If it is so I will have to deal with it.” Moonilal, also speaking with the T&T Guardian in a brief interview on Wednesday night at Rienzi Complex, said: “We are in discussions with the technical people at Udecott concerning that matter and by Monday we should have a report on that matter.” Chairman of the National Building Code Committee, Shyankaran Lalla, penned a letter to Moonilal and Khan advising them of the potential disaster if the hospital is constructed at the present site. In his letter, Lalla said: “Medical facilities are essentially required, as a lifeline structure, not as routine requirement, and must be fully functional post disaster. “Quakes are inevitable, but we can take action now to limit the damage. Stronger building codes and construction standards are one of the most effective approaches for new development.”

When contacted yesterday, Lalla indicated that he was advised of the matter by members of the engineering and geosciences community and it was brought to the attention of Moonilal, who indicated that he would meet and hold discussions with stakeholders. Lalla, a resident of California, said the people of Central welcomed the construction of a hospital in their area, but asked: “Did the engineers and technical advisers do a due diligence study in evaluating the risk before the site was recommended for the construction of new buildings?” He said that there is a need for inter-agency collaboration and consultation on key issues to avoid such errors, in keeping with regulations for earthquake-resistant construction, and “the failure to do so will result in the collapse of the building during an earthquake.” He said the Government should take note that earthquakes which struck Mexico City in 1985 resulted in the destruction of two of the most important hospitals—Juárez Hospital and the General Hospital of Mexico, both of which collapsed in the earthquakes’ wake.

Structural engineer Mark Francois expressed concern that a site specific study may not have been conducted on the proposed site, or the seismic issue would have been detected earlier.
“When you are building a facility of that nature, particularly a hospital that needs to be ready for use in terms of an earthquake, you need to do a site specific study to find out if there are any particular issues, seismic or otherwise, especially in a seismic active country like T&T,” he said. Francois said before contractors start the design process they need to know that information to determine what earthquake forces to use in their design. “We had a similar problem in Tobago with the hospital. It was designed for seismic zone two when it was in a higher zone—zone three at the time,” he said. “I am concerned when international contractors are involved in the design build process. There is not necessarily a commitment to doing what is best for us,” Francois added.

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