Sunday, August 7, 2016

Managing expectations in Belize

A recent Huffington Post report says the Red Cross has only managed to build six houses in Haiti since the earthquake in January 2010 and they have spent a half a BILLION dollars in donations doing so. (why the hyperlink isn't working I don't know)

If the story is to be believed, and it should not be entirely trusted, this reads like  gross mismanagement of a half a billion dollars but there is more to it than this I suspect.

If we start at the bottom and work our way up, security of tenure is the absolute foundation.  No NGO is going to build houses  on land that offers no security of tenure and it becomes especially problematic in places with a lot of poor people.  We can give them, tin, we can give them lumber and let people build their own, or we can solve the tenure issue and improve lives. 

This is not as easy as it sounds. Belize has a tenure system based on the Westminster model, that, like all things hundreds of years old, moves slowly. Too slow for the single Mom and her six kids who have no house.

The solution needs to be two pronged: Short term and immediate aid, which has already started and longer term security of tenure.

The economy of Belize is in crisis but even this needs to be kept in perspective: In a comparison between sovereign Canada and sovereign Belize two numbers stand out, and in the case of Belize, potentially offer hope.  I use the word sovereign, because the debt numbers I am using do NOT include, Canadian provincial or municipal debt. In Belize they do not have provinces, but do operate a district system with limited ability to borrow. To keep it level:

Population:                         351,700
Total debt:                          $1.2 Billion
Percentage of GDP:           75
Per capital debt:                 $3,639.00
Unemployment rate            10.1%
Per capital income              $8,500 bze (pegged 2-1 to the US dollar)

Population:                         36,000,000         
Total debt:                          $1.42 trillion
Percentage of GDP:           91.5
Per capita debt:                  $39,634.00
Unemployment rate            6.8%
Per capita income               $48,250 cdn (floating to the US dollar)

On the Surface it looks like Belize should be helping Canada out.  The challenge in a sovereign economy of  only 120,000 workers, is the amazingly low absolute upper limit on total dollars. This is true, whether we talk of government taxation or personal debt. In Canada, there is much more capacity and willingness to pay taxes and take on personal debt. The average Belizean worker has no such capacity.  The tiny place looks better on paper than Canada, but this is absolutely not true and when we deal with expectations this has to be front and center in the minds of those contributing to the recovery.

A sheet of plywood is $20.00 in Canada and takes the average worker an hour of his labour to pay for it. The plywood is also $20.00 in Belize and it will take the average worker NINE hours to earn enough to pay for it. 

That is the problem.

There are no good ways for people to replace their losses in Belize, no insurances, for the most part and a very limited capacity to respond by the government.  They are responding, and advising people to make good use of the materials they have at hand.

Hence the need for NGO's and foreign assistance.

The other issue, and a particularly troubling one from a housing perspective is the lack of skilled workers, this makes coordination very difficult indeed. 

Do we rebuild the houses where they were and worry about tenure later, or do we build in new places where we can offer tenure and raze the old? My preference is the latter, for those who's homes are beyond redemption, but for those who's homes can be repaired, they should be repaired and while we are at it, we should teach some skills.  I'm a carpenter by trade and I have a love affair with the techniques used in Belize. Imagine 1955, you needed a house or a garage you built one. It might not be square or level, but it's "good enough" and Belize is largely built around the "good enough" motto.

The approach should be:
Inspect it all and repair what can be repaired, local labour and material where at all possible. Do not fall prey to the notion that the home needs to be brought up to the current building code, just fix it so it's liveable, get people indoors don't worry about tenure.

Build new as can be funded, be it Habitat for Humanity, Rotary or the Red Cross as funder. New builds will require tenure, once the new is built, assign the housing to those in need. Make they pay something for it, be it time building or a stipend rent. A simple Mennonite style house, perhaps 20' x 24' could be built for $10-15,000.00 usd. This isn't a granite countertop McMansion I'm talking here, it's safe, dry shelter.

We could do a lot of good if we had about a hundred million dollars for this, the employment as well as the improved conditions will require serious commitment and coordination. It's all doable and will produce results, unlike the American Red Cross and Haiti which has managed to build less than six houses in seven years.

Friday, August 5, 2016

What about the poor? Hurricanes are indiscriminate

I like to use a little poetic licence in my writing, the odd quip, pun or witty remark. This blog will have none of that for I wish to address, a more serious and underreported subject: How did the poor fair in all this?  I think to make my point most effectively I need to take off my lens of political correctness, because honestly, most of the poor in Belize had nothing before hurricane Earl took it all away and they still have nothing, some maybe a little less than nothing.

The Cayes, Placentia and parts of the Cayo are playgrounds for Ex-Pats. The poor in Belize are lucky enough to have a roof, whether it is a gable or hip is quite secondary, they aren't the people who live ocean front, unless it's in a mangrove swamp, they are the people who clean your house, rake your gravel, wash your clothes and live at least three blocks away, in  conditions  nothing short of appalling:

A mother and six children lived in the house in the background, they got out unhurt, when their house started to collapse from the forces of nature. A woman, raising six kids in Canada would have little disposable income, in Belize she has none is probably lucky to afford school fees for two or three of them. Squalor doesn't have to go with the scenery, how is she going to fix her house?

Imagine sitting in this house when the roof and the walls vanished, what little you owned  was suddenly wet, or  gone? There is no home inspection solution for this situation, there is no single or multiple failed component here, a tent would have been as durable.

Having a house is only good if you can get to it, In this case, the structure appears to have survived but the area is now so littered with debris and broken that it is not safe at all. Every kid in Belize is barefoot, let's hope tetanus shots are available.

At least the evacuation route is clearly marked, by the looks of the house in the background they tried very hard to protect what they had, it does not appear to have been successful for what the wind did not take off the top of the building, flood water is going to take from the bottom.

We will persevere friends, there will always be poor folks in Belize and help will come where it can and for the most part will be appreciated. The best thing the average home or business owner can do right now, is hire and pay local people to clean up your mess so they have some money to deal with their own.

In my home country, Canada, we have similar conditions on some of our first nations reserves, the big difference, is there is no social safety net in Belize, everything is very personal and for this we should be eternally grateful, because the lady with six kids will get a house, if I have to harass my Canadian friends in Rotary International to NOT build a playground and instead build something that helps one family, I will.

The ex-pats will pay me for my services and I am happy to oblige, but we cannot forget that the country runs, not on the cold beer on the beach, but on the efforts and commitment of the people who live in conditions we cannot imagine and for the most part, do not wish to see.

Help out, all kindness, like politics is local

Doug Elniski
BestHomes Inspection Limited
Belize CA

Thursday, August 4, 2016

An examination of damage from Hurricane Earl in Belize

I love social media, I saw pictures of the consequences of Earl, virtually as it was happening. In examining the images, taken by the brave souls in the eye of the storm, literally. I thought it apt to make some observations about prevention measures that could be taken to alleviate some of the carnage.

First of all:
What is a hurricane? Hurricane standards are measured against the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale and are broken into five broad categories based on wind speed and storm surge.

Category 1:     Wind 74-95 mph,                          storm surge 4-5 feet
Category 2:     Wind 96-110 mph,                        storm surge 6-8 feet 
Category 3:     Wind 111-130 mph,                      storm surge 9-12 feet
Category 4:     Wind 131-155 mph,                      storm surge 13-18 feet
Category 5:     Wind over 155 mph,                     storm surge over 18 feet

Hurricane Katrina was a five when it hit New Orleans in 2005, Earl was a one when it hit last night.

According to definition: A category one hurricane will cause: Damage to shrubs, trees, unanchored mobile homes, and flooding of coastal roads  A category five hurricane is generally considered the fist of God hammering down on you, not much survives.

Earl was a category one hurricane, yet when it made landfall yesterday it did damage that might be better described as a category 3 hurricane: "Structural damage to small residences and utility buildings, large trees blown down, mobile structures destroyed." 

What does it mean if a category one storm does the damage of a category three storm?

It means you are in serous trouble if another bigger blow comes along. 

I will  examine some of the damage we witnessed and comment on possible remediation strategies: Rather than assume the people of Belize have unlimited budgets and they don't, I am going to start with some small steps that can be taken and would likely pay off.

Lets start with this house:  Pretty typical Belize house, concrete block walls stood up well, gable roof however did not. It appears the roof was not adequately attached to the wall structure:  Solution $50.00 worth of hurricane ties on the rafters.

If you look at the green and white building you will see what's left of the gable roof. The building itself was adequately protected with plywood on the windows, which likely saved it from further damage, but a gable roof has about a 70% greater likelihood of blowing off from  than a hip roof; when repaired, the owner should install a hip roof even though it costs a bit more. Right now the people who live on the second floor are homeless. This picture and most of the ones that follow are from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.

Note the stark contract between the last picture and these two buildings on the same beach: A hip roof WILL survive a class one hurricane. As these are very simple and somewhat traditional thatch roof installations, likely over a frame structure, this building is very easy and inexpensive to restore. Most of the damage to this structure appears to be from the storm surge and debris hitting the stairs, as the building appears to be concrete, damage is slight. and with minor repair immediately habitable.

A less robust thatch roof, likely lacking a strong rafter frame, it is so far gone we cannot tell what the original roof design was, none the less, a hip roof should be built. The building was well protected from the storm surge by being stilted.

This hip roof thatch ocean front home survived very well. Little damage is evident.

This building was well protected with plywood on the windows, aside from considerable debris, all of which has the potential to be a projectile, the gable is small and the roof held up well, it appears to be either a standing seam roof with hidden fasteners or a clay tile roof, based on the colour I'm guessing standing seam steel.

Random penetration and virtually total failure of the front of the house.

The owner indicated  that this was a new roof installation, it would appear the excessive unsupported overhang at the bottom contributed to the sheet metal roof failure. As this buildings gables are framed with lap siding, they offered sufficient rigidity to protect the structure, despite their size. The rafters of this frame building are also obviously well nailed to the walls.  Had the bottom of the sheets of tin been supported this building could have easily escaped unscathed.

If there was ever an argument in favour of a hip roof, this is it, the little building  has been completely displaced from it's foundation yet the roof  is intact, which might be small comfort to the owner, but a good lesson for others.

Note the piles of projectiles, during the blow this stuff is either flying around or moving around in the storm surge, all of it represents failure in construction and primarily a lack of structural integrity. It appears there is signage as well as some railings in the front view. That stuff hits you, it's gonna hurt.

Gable roof, total failure, probably would have anyway, looks like "three little pigs" house number two.

We could call this Pier Pressure.  The damage to these structures is as a result of the storm surge waves building up under the pier and lifting sections out. In design, consideration needs to be given to building failure in by reducing the number of fasteners or physically removing every third dock board at the first indication of a storm.  Give the water an easy way out and it will take it. The boat in the second picture is an amazingly rusty old tub that has been moored in Placentia as long as I can remember, since it didn't sink, I think I will buy it. There used to be a diver shop in the foreground.

All that pier lumber moved around by the ocean had to go someplace, it appears to have penetrated this building in several places. This wood frame on concrete pilings building is decidedly out of square as a result of the blow. I've been in this bar, it wasn't wobbly before, even if I thought it was by the time I left.

The hip roof dive shop looks in pretty good shape, hard to tell since the lack of surge provision on the piers virtually made it an island unto itself.

Idyllic scene, until you turn around.

The successes can be as interesting as failures. This building did everything it was supposded to do very well, good quality construction and adequate storm shutters.

This is what they call a Mennonite house; the Mennonites build these cute little bungalows ands set them on stilts both for flooding and to get a cooling breeze underneath, unfortunately, this one suffered damage before it was even finished.  Because it was damaged on the gable end, it is likely this is a wind pressure failure. Note the stain pattern for the walls, you can see the force the wind took as it pushed against the gable. When I move to Belize I will live in a house made of sea cans on stilts.

This is San Ignacio town, this particular spot is about 20 feet above the normal level of the Macal river, the combined impact of being near the bottom a slope, inadequate drains the water having no way to escape.  The structures themselves are probably going to be ok, I sure hope so because that pharmacy sells OTC generic Viagra for $5.00 Bze. a pill, "I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day" or so I heard.

This is the San Ignacio market, it is at the bottom of a series of impressive hills and is about 12 feet above the river. The bridge into town is about five feet lower than this location which suggests it was impassable. There is another bridge of greater elevation that should be ok for access.

San Ignacio, is the most westerly town in Belize, it is located in a valley between the Maya mountains and the Yalbac hills, (more or less). The Mopan and Macal rivers meet just north of town to form the Belize river, which eventually becomes a navigable transportation route. Upstream on the Macal are two major dams designed for both power generation and flood mitigation. an unprecedented twelve inches of rain fell, raising both  reservoirs to flood level.  A lack of adequate drainage in town, if such a thing could credibly exist, contributed to the flooding by pushing the water through the town center.

Like a fire scene or a head wound, the situation often looks much worse than it is, but still this is  fair warning of the power of a class one hurricane.
When you decide to come here to live or buy a vacation rental, look long and hard about what your weaknesses are in the case of a storm.

Better yet, get your purchase inspected, by me!

Thanks to my friend Kate Corrigan and Macarena Rose of Keller Williams  Real Estate and those great souls at LOVE FM, for the pictures. If I happened to have used yours from Facebook, please let me know and I will include you in the credits. 

Let the rebuild begin.

And this was "only" a CLASS ONE hurricane

My recent post about protecting yourself from wind damage is eerily timely given Hurricane Earl made landfall in Belize last night. Images from the Cayes as well as the mainland show very clearly the devastation, god I hate to say this,  a relatively minor hurricane does to the unprotected.  Nature will always win my friends, the choices are either complacency or preparation, there is no middle ground when it comes to protecting assets.

The  National Emergency Management Organization, (NEMO) did a great job preparing the country. LOVE FM, probably the worlds best radio station, was the energizer bunny of keeping people informed about what was going on while it was happening.

Parts of Belize City were under five feet of water, looting started and was quickly brought under control by the National Defense Forces, overall no lives were lost, property can be rebuilt and an already troubled economy will take yet  another hit.

Storm surges and projectiles are the two deadlies in hurricanes themselves.  We are seeing wide spread flooding throughout the country and hopefully we continue without loss of life, all of the  dams are at flood level, the water has to go someplace, the coastal regions are in for a second shock. Flooding.

Floods bring with them uncontrolled septic release, unpredictable water flows and after it dries up, mud, mould and decay.  

It's not a pretty sight on San Pedro this morning, again this was  ONLY  a class one hurricane with sustained winds of 75 miles an hour, it was NOT a major hurricane by any stretch of the imagination.  Newer properties faired better, it is a reminder that when you live in paradise you do make yourself vulnerable  to Mother Nature.

God Bless Belize, still the Jewel.