Grenada: Making homes for the elderly safer following back-to-back hurricanes

Hurricane Ivan, one of the most intense storms of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, badly damaged Grenada’s Richmond Home for the Elderly.  The entire roof of the main building collapsed, killing one patient. More residents died in the following months, mostly as a result of the increased stress faced by the elderly living in unsanitary cramped conditions following what must have been a traumatic event. This good practice example discusses the repair and retro-fitting of the Richmond Home.

The event that prompted action

Hurricane Ivan was one of the most intense storms of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, at one point reaching category 5, with hurricane winds in excess of 248 kph. As the massive storm passed near the small Caribbean nation of Grenada in September, the sustained wind speed in the eye wall was 193 kph, with a degree of wind pressure 30-60 per cent greater than prescribed by the Caribbean Uniform Building Code (CUBiC). Fortunately, Hurricane Ivan was a fast moving storm. Had it lingered over Grenada, there would have been more structural damage and much greater rainfall.

Hurricane Ivan badly damaged Grenada’s Richmond Home for the Elderly, which also accommodates psychiatric patients. The entire roof of the three-story main building collapsed (the top floor had housed female patients). When this occurred, the Richmond Home had approximately 100 residents, but over the course of the next six months, some 30 residents died. Although one death was the direct result of collapsing structures during the storm, most of the deaths came about as a result of the increased stress faced by the elderly living in unsanitary cramped conditions following what must have been a traumatic event.

Action taken

Following Hurricane Ivan, a damage assessment of the Richmond Home was conducted. In addition to hurricanes, the study looked at a full range of natural hazards, including earthquakes and torrential rains. The cost of implementing the works recommended by the study was estimated at US$1 million. In the meantime, as an emergency measure, the roof of the main building was replaced to permit female residents to reoccupy the upper floor. Volunteers and military personnel from a neighbouring country, without formal engineering input, carried out the roof replacement.

Ten months later, on 13 July 2005, Hurricane Emily (a category 1 event ) struck Grenada, causing significant damage to the temporary roof that was installed after Hurricane Ivan. A post-Emily assessment revealed damage to the roofs of the main building and the physiotherapy room and water damage to floors, walls and electrical distribution systems. When Emily struck, not all of the damage from Hurricane Ivan had been repaired. In particular, the nurses’ quarters had not been returned to full use, and the repairs that had been made, were emergency repairs and not intended to withstand future hurricane events.

At this point, there was general agreement that future repairs and retrofitting should aim to meet standards for a geriatric home to retain its functionality for the medium term (5 to 10 years). These standards should also be suitable for the long-term alternative use of the facility for other institutional purposes after the geriatric home is relocated to a more suitable site.

Synergy between design, checking and quality control

When repairs began to the Richmond Home in September 2005, a check consultant was recruited to review the design and make recommendations for improvements. The check consultant also was to review the construction quality control procedures and make occasional site visits to see whether the procedures were being followed.

Optimally, a check consultant should begin work when a design team is appointed, in order to avoid delays in the review and approval processes and the need to redo much of the work. However, in this case, Grenada’s Agency for Reconstruction and Development was well advanced with its work before the check consultant was appointed. And so, when an initial review of the plans revealed that the conceptual design would replicate what was there before Ivan and Emily, it was clear that the drawings were far from complete for construction purposes. No calculations had been presented. The specifications required a great deal of revision. Much information remained to be completed before construction began.

Time was becoming a major issue, as the occupants of the Richmond Home needed to be accommodated in safer living quarters as soon as possible. In the best case scenario, there was a clear division of work: the designated engineer was responsible for the design and the check consultant for reviewing it.

The checking process involves a degree of assistance, guidance and transfer of knowledge. Indeed, check consultants help develop the construction industry by improving the design process and quality assurance systems. There is a real opportunity for technology transfer in this method of building standards control and the process works best if the designer does his/her part before submitting it for review. During this process the designer may seek information and guidance from the checker but the checker should not become the designer!

During the course of construction, the check consultant made four site inspections to review quality control mechanisms, observe the progress of the works, review proposals for works not yet defined in documents and address administrative matters. A little over a year from the time work began, the Richmond Home was re-commissioned, providing a structurally and functionally safe health facility for its vulnerable occupants who are even more at risk in emergency situations.

Lessons learned

  1. Repairs made to buildings — particularly critical health facilities — damaged by the effects of natural hazards should aim to meet standards prescribed in current national codes, where these are available. Otherwise, the advice of specialists should be sought regarding appropriate standards.

  2. Facilities that house confined or non-ambulatory persons require higher standards of safety than conventional buildings.

  3. Check consultants should be employed for all major healthcare work projects. The checking consultant should be an engineer (or engineering firm) with considerable knowledge and experience in designing facilities to withstand natural hazards common to the geographic location of the project. The check consultant should commence work at the same time as the design team and carry out the checks in tandem with the design process.

More information is available from:

Engineer Tony Gibbs
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