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The Triangle of Life: An eastern Caribbean perspective on earth quake safety

We live in an area that is prone the earthquakes. The lessons from Haiti must strike a chord in all of us. But with conflicting advice, how can we be certain of learning the lesson?

Since the earthquake in Haiti on January 12, the internet has been abuzz with advice on how to cope in the event of an earthquake. Most of the guidance is nothing new, even the WEEKender has given a list of ways to protect yourself should the worst occur and you find yourself inside a shaking or collapsing building. However, one email surprised us, both for its authoritative presentation and its advice which runs counter to what is traditionally taught.

The e-mail in question is actually an article written by a Mr. Doug Copp, who claims to be a Rescue Chief/Disaster Manager of the American Rescue Team International (ARTI). ARTI is a private company not affiliated with the U.S. Government or other agency. Copp clearly and quite convincingly explains that in his role for ARTI, he has "crawled inside 875 collapsed buildings, worked with rescue teams from 60 countries, founded rescue teams in several countries," he continues with, "I am a member of many rescue teams from many countries. I was the United Nations expert in Disaster Mitigation for two years. I have worked at every major disaster in the world since 1985, except for simultaneous disasters." This is all very impressive, of course, but the problem stems from the details of his advice. He takes issue with the traditional "duck, cover and hold on" which is taught by the International and American Red Cross and other earthquake safety experts. Instead of getting under a sturdy piece of furniture such as a strong table or desk, Copp advises curling up in the foetal position next to, rather than under, such a piece of furniture. His advise, he claims, is based on his own observations during rescues, where he has seen many times that furniture will collapse, but next to it remains a triangle-shaped zone of safety where someone could have survived.

Local knowledge

After probing into the pros and cons of Mr. Copp's theories, WEEKender discovered the American Red Cross has directly responded to his advice, saying that during an earthquake, the "Triangle of Life" methods should not be followed in U.S. buildings or those following U.S. construction methods. Apparently construction in developed countries should not lead to heavy "pancake collapse" of floors and ceilings that would crush a strong piece of furniture. The question remains, though, do we in the Eastern Caribbean follow Copp's advice or the more accepted advice of the Red Cross?

Bas Vastenhout, owner and structural engineer at Vascon, commented in a phone interview that in general St. Maarten buildings incorporate "shear walls" that can withstand lateral forces, such as the left-to-right shaking experienced in an earthquake. But, he insists, there could be some buildings, probably older buildings, with insufficient lateral capacity. Examples of poorly engineered structures are those that utilize columns to support concrete slabs; these are quite susceptible to catastrophic pancake collapse.

Architect Pedro Itirago of Gioia Construction (The Blue Mall) noted that for big construction projects, St. Maarten conforms to building codes and regulations similar to those prescribed by U.S. Standards. However, he commented, for small construction projects, he could not say. This discrepancy between "big projects" and "small construction" conforms with the view of regional building methods described in a report by experts at the University of the West Indies (UWI).

President of the St. Maarten Red Cross, Bobby Velasquez, reiterated this concern, saying that "our buildings are very well built, and they should not collapse if, God forbid, we were to have a 7.0 earthquake, as what happened to Haiti." Velasquez emphasized that the Red Cross teaches people to protect themselves from falling objects during an earthquake by getting under a sturdy piece of furniture or into a small room where the walls are close together.

Caribbean Experts

The UWI scientists at the Seismic Research Centre, knowing construction methods through out our region, have come out strongly opposed to the Copp recommendations. They do not support the Triangle of Life theory and, in fact, report feeling compelled to respond to Copp's article which they say, "at the very least can be misleading for the Caribbean region."

The UWI report goes on to say, "In the Eastern Caribbean, most dense occupant buildings (e.g. schools, commercial buildings, hospitals, etc.) are made in conformance with a building code. Many residential buildings, however, do not adhere to building codes but the dominant type of construction in this category is single to double storey structures with roofs made out of pliable and relatively light material (e.g. galvanize). Hence large scale "pancaking" or crumbling of buildings (both residential and non-residential) in this region, which would crush occupants as described in the "Triangle of Life" assertion, is not expected." They recommend a proper study be conducted by civil engineers, seismologists and architects before the "triangle of life" protocol can be recommended as a survival strategy during an earthquake.

They conclude their report with these words: "As evidenced by the recent earthquakes in the Caribbean region, we should take the necessary precautions to ensure that homes, schools and workplaces are "earthquake safe" such as securing heavy furniture, removing pictures or mirrors that could fall on a bed, anchoring tall furniture to wall studs, etc. We emphasize, however, that "Earthquake Safety Tips" are not a magic wand to be used blindly. Scientists continue to advise that people should remain calm and alert, eyes wide open, protect their heads and faces during an earthquake by going under a strong desk and holding on and to use reasonable judgement for personal safety."

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