Insufficient territorial planning, combined with deficiencies in construction and maintenance practices, increases the vulnerability of structures in The Bahamas to the impacts of major hurricanes, according to an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report, “Assessment of the Effects and Impacts of Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas”.
The report called for master plans to be developed for each island in The Bahamas.
“The deficiencies in construction and maintenance practices are exacerbated by absent or incipient territorial planning,” it read.
The report added, “In The Bahamas, 88 percent of the population lives less than 10 meters above sea level, and most of its critical infrastructure is also located near the coast.
“Hurricane Dorian generated extreme conditions due to flooding associated with the water surge. Grand Bahama experienced high level of flooding in the populated areas, impacting housing, buildings and other infrastructure.
“A cohesive urban planning/zoning system should be based on the mapping of all low areas with risk of flooding.”
The report noted that a lack of adherence to building codes, lack of proper maintenance and the use of inadequate or hazardous materials contributed significantly to the varying degrees of structural damage as a result of Hurricane Dorian.
Dorian ravaged Grand Bahama and Abaco last September with wind gusts over 200 mph and storm surges as high as 23 feet.
Many communities on the islands were wiped away, leaving thousands homeless, hundreds missing and many dead.
The IDB report noted that compliance with the building code was “one of the most salient and urgent recommendations of this report”.
“Most of the houses assessed with significant signs of damage were not complying with the building code, especially in remote areas,” it read.
“It is worth noting that this situation repeats itself in every assessment conducted since 2015.
“During the assessment mission, government representatives conveyed the challenge of establishing a management/supervisory program to assure the correct application of the code due to the geographical spread of the houses and lack of financial and human resources.
“Correct application of the norms requires appropriate compliance and enforcement mechanisms, which includes training for public officials responsible for approving construction permits, the establishment of accountability measures and sensitization of the population.”
The report added, “As a rule of thumb, less populated, low-income and isolated communities (very common in archipelago countries such as The Bahamas) have challenges in the application of the building code due to lack of quality or quantity of construction contractors, construction supervision and appropriate inspection to guarantee the enforcement of the building code.”
The report also noted that an “important number of public structures had been affected by previous storms or hurricanes and presented varying levels of deterioration” and said maintenance efforts that were already in place for those structures were inconsistently applied or were just cosmetic.
“It is recommended to establish annual sectoral maintenance programs, especially for essential infrastructures such as health, education, water and sanitation, power and telecommunications facilities and equipment,” it read.
“Inspections of public infrastructure should be mandatory and scheduled before hurricane season every year, as well as after passage of tropical storms and hurricanes. This will assist in the identification and removal of threats. In addition, and regardless of the frequency of storms and hurricanes, routine maintenance schemes must be developed to supervise the condition of these facilities.”
The report also noted that while The Bahamas has a “comprehensive and rigorous” building code, “the magnitude of Hurricane Dorian and subsequent observed damage exposed gaps in the enforcement of existing regulations and the potential need to undertake an extensive building code review.”
The report noted zoning plans “can no longer be postponed”, and recommended that exposed communities and flood-prone areas be identified.
“By collecting data and mapping all low areas with risk of flooding, a zoning system can be generated,” it read.
“This system could be the determinant factor for allowing future construction developments.”
It added, “The importance of data lies on how it is used to improve public policies and interventions. Therefore, it should be used to design resilient settlements through the identification of risk-prone and safe areas; adequate land uses; and location of public services.
“Given the exposure of the country to natural hazards and the repeated damage to infrastructure located close to the shoreline or in flood-prone areas, it is imperative to design zoning plans.
“Although this action is socially, culturally and economically costly, it can no longer be postponed.”
The IDB report said settlements that were completely destroyed should be used “to pilot the design and construction of resilient communities”.
“In sum, it is highly recommended to elaborate master plans for each island and consider adequate settlement location within them according to safety and resilience standards,” it read.
It added, “Some recommendations to minimize flooding damage due to water surge include: mapping of low elevation areas with risk of flooding and generating a zoning system for construction in non-risk areas [and] planning future projects for flooding mitigation in areas that are considered vulnerable.
“As part of the spatial planning and mapping efforts of risk areas, the construction of seawalls might be considered, as they are less invasive than other coastal defenses.
“This should be planned in conjunction with other recreational and tourism requirements and consider existing limitations. It should include a detailed evaluation of the coastal perimeter levee, one of the most used techniques in terms of flood mitigation.
“Another option is to use mangrove for coastal protection of populated and low elevated areas that are not adjacent to the beaches used for touristic purposes.
“In this regard, the government might consider securing the support from specialized institutions and organizations to create a cohesive plan integrated and in harmony with other sectors such as tourism and fisheries.”