HAVING experienced two Category 5 hurricanes, seen the devastation and been around to feel and understand the inconveniences, to just express it mildly: no water, no electricity or no telecommunication for an extended period. Lots of time, though, to think about what happened and who are suffering and wondering about the future.
Returning to what may be considered ‘normal’ is not an option but rather a mediocratic restoration. I have seen buildings that remained almost untouched. I have seen buildings without roofs, windows or doors where residents sat in front of what once was their beloved home and their completely-damaged furniture and belongings in the yard or on the street in front of them. People not knowing what to do or what may be next. I have seen tremendous piles of sheet metal.
Hurricane preparedness, including having bottled water, batteries, getting any loose items out of the way, etc. is a minimal precaution. What about buildings and construction? The Caribbean needs a hurricane building code.
It may bring me in the doghouse, but I dare to say that the various individual Caribbean governments are incompetent to establish an appropriate code that focusses on building hurricane-resistant structures. Even if one government would be able to do so, what about the ten-plus other countries that have ten-plus different viewpoints? What about the political umbrella organizations handling it? If you ask me, I have my doubts. Did I say doghouse? Now, I may be thrown in front of the lions. Being skeptical or critical is one thing, coming up with a positive suggestion is a different thing. Okay, then, here we go…
An independent Caribbean Research and Development Institute for Architecture and Construction should be founded. The institute should be supported by the insurance and building Industries. The activities of the institute should be carried out in cooperation with reputable international universities such as, for instance, the Technical University Delft — Netherlands, or Technical University Zurich – Switzerland. No political involvement – but an absolutely independent and impartial organization.
Why the insurance industry? When it comes to big dollars and cents, whose profits suffered the most after the hurricanes? They should have a vested interest in any practical and realistic solution that reduces risks; after all, believe it or not, it is a risk adverse industry. Why the building/construction industry? They should be interested in developing materials and methods that resist any challenging situation. Their financial support and investment should pay off well for them in return. Why the international universities? That should not need much explanation. They are reputable and insurance and building/construction industries will trust them. Any government or political organization in the region would be foolish to doubt their credibility.
The institute should independently do its research and development to establish a building code for hurricane stealth and resisting construction. I even suggest it to have a wind tunnel available to test structure models in extreme high wind circumstances. In addition, the institute should be the preferred independent international organization that can certify whether design, construction or materials are appropriate. Therefore, it will have inspectors and adjusters. Again, no government or political involvement.
The insurance industry, from its side, might determine that that any new commercial building that is not hurricane certified can only be insured at higher premiums, get limited coverage or, in the worst case, it may not be considered at all for insurance coverage. The building suppliers could proudly show the certificate or seal of approval on their products. Come to think of it, investors in new projects may also applaud to see a certification.
The mission of the institute is not to police or regulate, but rather be an undertaking to prevent and protect against hurricane damages of an extraordinary proportion that we have seen recently and which actually may return at any time in the future. It is not the aim to take authority away from local governments, although it could become a matter of lead, follow, or get out of the way of the institution. The wisest option for all would be to cooperate with this new credible organization all the way and establishing and accepting a positive standard for all.
The institute will inform general audiences about how to protect their dwellings from hurricane impact. It can do so through publication of documentation, presentations on the media or at locally-organized meetings. As you see, there are many benefits that come out of this solution.
But there is more. The lucky island that will be selected as the location of choice may now have landed an institute of higher learning that is internationally accredited, affiliated and respected, which means new employment in the non-academic segments of the institution on location. It may mean conferences to be held on the island and an opportunity to develop unique science tourism. For young people in the region, it may be an option to study an alternative academic direction that they don’t have to go abroad for. Because it is Caribbean-related, it may be an opportunity for them to find well-paying employment in the region afterwards or even set up their own specialized business. The hurricane damage has proven that it all makes sense.
As criticizing as I may have been in the beginning, at least I have provided a positive suggestion. Not telling anyone what to do. I know what I would do. For all others, just consider it to be food for thought.
(Cdr. Bud Slabbaert is the initiator and coordinator of the annual Caribbean Aviation Meetup conference. The international results and solution oriented event brings airlift stakeholders from aviation and tourism industry, as well as government authorities together (www.caribavia.com). His background is accentuated by Business Development, Strategic Communication, and Journalism.)