There would be far less destruction to homes and buildings during strong hurricanes like Category 5 Hurricane Dorian, if The Bahamas enforced its building code and zoning laws, insisted a leading stakeholder in the building industry.
Marcus Laing, who is a licensed architect and partner at TDG Architects, said if the government is willing, legislation could be drafted now to provide proper zoning and planning that could possibly prevent widespread destruction by a storm like Dorian.
First, he said, buildings should have never been allowed to be built on the beach or in marshy areas.
“Our designs start with planning and zoning first. Everyone wants to live on the beach, but you know you live in a hurricane zone, so why build there? Our design and zoning should always be where we build on the highest points of land and areas not on the coast,” Laing told Guardian Business.
“The most expensive pieces of land are the worst places to build. Money wants the beach. The wealthy people want to be on the beach, the hotels want to be on the beach. You can have access to the beach but not be on the beach. That can be done now, where we say no one can build this many yards away from the beach.”
Dorian is estimated to have caused billions in damage to Abaco, which was leveled in some areas, and Grand Bahama, which sustained severe flooding.
“This is another case of us not enforcing our laws and paying attention to what we should be doing. Most of the places that are devastated are in places where we should not have been building to begin with. We tend to go in and tear out mangroves and marshland, which are actually buffers for hurricanes. So, you’re living where the buffer used to be, building a regular house, and then you expect it to survive,” said the architect, who also serves as the charter secretary for the group Bahamas Engineers and Architectural Professionals (BEAAP).
“When you look at Freeport, those northern areas have always been wetlands and those wetlands protected everyone on the southern side of the island. So, the only people who were devastated in Freeport were the people who lived in those areas that used to be the protection for the whole island.”
In the aftermath of Dorian, calls for the revamping of the country’s building code have reignited.
“We go through this every hurricane. The first thing people always say is our buildings need to be designed better, which is not solely the case because all buildings aren’t built exactly the same and our building code is extremely strong and extremely stringent. The problem is, when people decide to have their house designed and have their house built they tend to do almost the opposite of what they should be doing,” Laing said.
“There’s always a way to try to save costs, a lot of people don’t want to pay for an architect, so some guy who just draws from home puts a drawing together that looks good but doesn’t function and doesn’t meet code. Then they build it and their contractor pays an inspector or just builds it and doesn’t have it inspected.”
Laing admitted, however, the unusual strength of Hurricane Dorian, which packed wind speeds up to 185 miles per hour (mph) and wind gusts up to 200 mph.
“That’s a very unusual storm, it’s the strongest we’ve had that hit land ever. What you learned from this storm is, you can’t design for everything. We may have a storm that reaches wind gusts of 250 mph, but that may not hit every part of an area, that might peak at a particular time and a particular location, but that doesn’t mean that the hurricane has that sustained wind all the time,” he said.
“It’s hard to design for unknowns, most of our codes are based on empirical data where you have consistent hurricanes at a consistent wind load. In the past, just five or ten years ago, a Category 5 storm was really rare. But with global warming and warmer waters and the way that our environment is affecting storms, now we’re going to get stronger storms.
“Our government is always reactive. The building industry, architects and engineers have been pushing for us to revise the building code from at least 2006. So, we have not revised our building code since it was last touched in 2003. Again, it’s very strong and very stringent, but it’s not being enforced and now that the weather is changing, we need to make a lot of different changes in our code.”
Following the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis charged Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister with fortifying the country’s building code.