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Prof Weber on Couva Children’s Hospital: It takes time for policy, science to catch up

Saturday, September 14, 2013
An artist’s impression of the proposed Couva Children’s Hospital.

United States professor of geology Dr John C Weber is calling for collaboration between policymakers and scientists as a way forward in the debate over the location of the $1.5 billion Couva Children’s Hospital in Preysal. The hospital is being constructed, according to the latest Global Positioning System (GPS) co-ordinates, four kilometres from the Central Range Fault (CRF) system. 



Local seismologists and engineers have expressed concern about its proximity to a potential earthquake zone, especially in the absence of a national building code. The T&T Guardian, in an exclusive report last month, highlighted these concerns, prompting an emergency meeting among Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan, Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal, Urban Development Corporation (Udecott) chairman Jearlean John, seismologists at the UWI Seismic Research Centre and engineers.


On Tuesday, Udecott released its geotechnical report on the hospital in response to questions raised by a group of engineers calling themselves Engineers Anonymous. The hospital is being constructed by Chinese contractors Shanghai Construction, through a loan from the Chinese government.


Weber, speaking with the T&T Guardian on Thursday from his office at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, said there must be an “intermeshing” of science and policy to ensure a safe hospital design for the billion-dollar project and all buildings near the fault system. He called for a strong building code and the enforcement of international seismic codes for public safety similar to the California seismic rules in the US.


“It is clear that policy and science need to be informing each other, policy and science need to catch up with one another,” he said. “It seems that there probably needs to be a building code that is informed by this discovery of an active fault.” Weber said people live in places like California and Japan, both of which have highly-active earthquake fault systems, and “they do that because they basically have policies that establish really strict, stringent building codes near active faults.”



T&T, he said, needed to have similar codes and legislation in light of the discovery of the CRF. He said the system  was discovered fairly recently—ten years ago—and studies are still being done on its potential for generating major earthquakes. Weber said the CRF is a locked fault system, which means it is accumulating strained energy and could rupture, causing a major earthquake.


“We do not have all the answers, and the policy is sort of lagging behind the science and maybe it is a little bit hard for engineers to understand the squishiness that we deal with as scientists,” he said. T&T has established a Building Code Committee to develop a national building code. However, to date no funding has been allocated to the committee. 


Weber, who has done extensive research and written papers on the CRF, said investigations into the fault system were still ongoing and calculations from recent tests, done over the past few months, were to be completed. He stressed: “We are pretty convinced that we could see evidence for a fossil earthquake (on the CRF) and if there are fossil earthquakes that is pretty good evidence that a fault may be able to make a modern earthquake.”


He said since geologists did not know about the CRF before, it is clear that present policy, which is already outdated, “is not informed by this research.” “It is a new discovery, it takes some time for policy and science to catch up with one another,” he added. He described the sticking point between seismologists and government as “growing pains,” but pointed out that the issue is bigger than individuals and involves public safety.


“There are whole different levels of people who need to be looked out for with earthquake engineering policies, Weber said. “Plenty of my best friends live in Trinidad, so this is something very close to me personally. It’s a problem I really care about.” “It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of people working hard together. It is doable.” He explained that the research needs to be completed, then earthquake engineers will have to take the science and translate it into seismic hazard and seismic risk.


“That is a long process of making maps, doing calculations before translating and all that stuff into building codes, codes for retrofitting old buildings, codes for new buildings. “So it is not a simple process, there is not one simple answer. It is a long involved process that a lot of people need to be involved in.” Weber said he would be in Trinidad in December to continue his work on the CRF and is open to joining in the effort to marry science and policy.


“This has been 25 years of my career trying to get the right answers and trying to make sure that those answers could be used for public good... it is a long way to say yes of course I am interested,” he said.


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