The UWI Seismic Research Centre joins the call for a national building code

Trinidad and Tobago must push forward in building its resilience to seismic hazard to ensure that progress towards sustainable development is not set back by a major earthquake.

The establishment and enforcement of a national building code are critical components for strengthening resilience to all hazards including earthquakes. While efforts to establish a local building code have been ongoing for the last few years through a National Building Code Committee, progress has been slow and as urban centres continue to grow, so too does the nation’s seismic risk.

“Building earthquake resilience is done over a long period and the longer we take to start, the greater the risk that one of the expected large magnitude earthquakes will occur before we have reached that stage,” said Dr. Richard Robertson, Director of The UWI Seismic Research Centre. “Haiti should have been a wakeup call but we seemed to have lost sight of that lesson as the building code process continues to move too slowly.”

The magnitude 7.0 Haiti Earthquake in 2010 is believed to have killed near 300,000 people and led to widespread devastation in Haiti, largely due to that nation’s poorly constructed buildings and high density population centres. This was in stark contrast to the Chilean event one month later which, at magnitude 8.8, caused a little over 200 deaths and considerably less property damage. This is attributed to Chile’s strict adherence to robust building codes and adequate regulatory mechanisms, a clear indication of the utility of such codes.

Recent research indicates that economic damage of US$5 billion and US$6 billion respectively for Port of Spain and San Fernando could occur from a magnitude 7.5 earthquake. The current estimates of seismic hazard suggest that the likelihood of being killed by an earthquake in the next 50 years is comparable to the likelihood of being murdered in that same period given the current murder rate and current estimate of the seismic hazard.

“We need appropriate building codes backed by legislation. Earthquakes do not kill people, buildings do,” remarked Robertson.

Trinidad and Tobago lie in an area of high earthquake activity for the Caribbean and scientific evidence indicates that the islands are likely to experience a large magnitude earthquake sooner rather than later.