December 12, 2019

Bahamas need to reconsider building practices amid Dorian clean-up

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By Imogen Francis From The Globe Post

The OFDA disaster team’s search & rescue members walk through marshes, debris, and mud in Abaco, Bahamas to assess damage. Photo: US Embassy Nassau, @USEmbassyNassau/Twitter

Just over a month after Hurricane Dorian flattened parts of the Abaco Islands and killed over 50 people, the county’s leaders and the Inter-American Development Bank have allocated a $100 million loan to start rebuilding. But experts believe before any rebuilding takes place, the Bahamian government needs to invest in resilient building practices to better protect against the threat of future powerful hurricanes.   

Climate change progresses studies show that the frequency of catastrophic storms is most likely going to increase.

“For the continental United States in the Atlantic Basin, models project a 45 to 87 percent increase in the frequency of Category four and five hurricanes despite a possible decrease in the frequency of storms,” states the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions website.

David Prevatt, a wind and structural engineer, said to The Globe Post that because the string of islands that make up the Bahamas lies in the path of some of the most deadly hurricanes, he sees the rebuilding effort as potentially reckless.

“If we were to say for some reason we thought it was a good idea to live within the center of a volcano because it was nice and it was comfortable and we choose to rebuild with construction that was incompatible with the potential forces that a volcano can generate, it would be considered foolhardy,” he said.

“In the same way, choosing to rebuild or build in the first place in the direct path of a hurricane, which we know will come again and using standards we know will fail again it is also foolhardy.”

According to experts, the Bahamas have some of the best building codes in the Carribean, but they have not been updated since 2003 and are not in line with international standards. With the increase in the number of catastrophic hurricanes hitting the islands, experts believe that the Bahamas need to update their codes to better protect residents in the event of another category five hurricane.

“If you chose to live within a direct path of a hurricane … it should be mandatory that you choose a construction system that can resist it. Unless the rebuilding has fundamentally understood what is required to resist a hurricane and to place people in houses, businesses and homes that assist it, well then the answer is no it should not be rebuilt,” said Prevatt.


Destruction and Dollars

Hurricane Dorian is not the first catastrophic storm to hit the Abaco Islands. In 1932, the Great Abaco Hurricane came ashore, flattened 200 houses and officially killed 16 people, but according to Prevatt, the hurricane was almost as deadly as Dorian.

“What we saw with hurricane Dorian, for this generation may be considered the Great Abaco Hurricane of 2019, however, historically the Great Abaco Hurricane occurred in 1932,” he said. “Yet we chose to ignore that … and continued to build because people love to live there.”

Following the Great Abaco Hurricane in 1932 came a long line of catastrophic storms to hit the island. Hurricane Mathew caused over $500 million in damages and the preliminary damage estimate for Dorian is $7 billion. Additionally, for a nation whose economy relies primarily on tourism, hurricanes and tropical storms can have long-lasting effects on people’s livelihood long after the hurricanes have left.

However, resident Demarco Mott believes that with the help of foreign governments the Bahamas has the ability to bounce back and better than they were before.

“We have rebuilt over many years in addition to that we have many humanitarian efforts that are rolling in,” he said to The Globe Post. “We are also in a position where we are able to borrow due to our great reputation.”

Shortly after Dorian hit, the pledged $2 million to aid in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. Also, in addition to the $100 million contingency loan from the , the organization is also in talks regarding a $180 million for the Bahamian energy sector project. Other countries have pledged to provide the Bahamas with financial aid, but not enough to cover the large bill Dorian left.

Prevatt believes that even with international aid the island should not be rebuilt unless it starts to seriously look into building standards that will protect people during category five hurricanes.


Looking Forward

Large portions of the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama were flattened by the 185 mph winds and 20-foot storm surge Dorian brought with it. Despite these severe conditions, there were buildings that survived. According to ChristianRenschler, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, buildings that were made out of more robust foundations weathered the storm but almost all light wooden structures were destroyed. 

But, throughout the Bahamas, Renschler said, many of the structures are sub-standard making them far less resilient to hurricanes complex wind and storm surge patterns. Experts believe this is a combination of outdated building codes that don’t protect against increasing wind speeds and the lack of enforcement of the codes on new buildings. 

Steer Network, an organization that surveys the damage following major events, currently has two teams on the ground in Grand Bahama assessing the damage and have found the effects of the hurricane to be far-reaching.

“On the Grand Bahama island one structure that was damaged by storm surge stood more than 3 km away from the north shore indicating the reach of this storm surge over very low-lying islands,” said Prevatt, who has a leadership position at the Steer Network.

However, despite the wide-spread devastation and future hurricane danger, Renschler believes that as long as people want to live there, it is up to engineers to provide housing solutions that can withstand hurricanes.

“There are all kinds of purposes why people are there,” saidRenschler. ”There are social, cultural, and economic lifestyle issues, you know if people want to live there you going to have to think about how to live sustainably and how do they live resilient.”

And regardless of the risk of disastrous hurricanes, Mott said Bahamians are not leaving the islands.

“We have natural disasters that happen and people don’t even want to move from the area because that is something that they’re attached to,” said Mott. “I foresee that Abaco will come back and it will come back stronger than it was before.”

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