When Hurricane Elsa hit Barbados

Elsa was briefly a Category 1 hurricane over Barbados on 2 July 2021, which means there were sustained winds over 74 mph.  The US National Hurricane Center says these “very dangerous winds will produce some damage”.  A Category 2 hurricane (96 – 110 mph sustained winds) would cause “extensive damage”, a Category 3 hurricane (111 – 129 mph) would be regarded as a major hurricane and cause “devastating damage”.  Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans in 2005 was Category 5 with winds exceeding 175 mph.

Despite Elsa barely qualifying as a hurricane, with sustained winds of 74 mph gusting to 86 mph, the storm caused significant damage in Barbados. It was officially reported that 2,372 houses were damaged – including 1,333 reports of roof damage and 145 total house collapses.  This experience highlights problems with the resilience of the housing stock.  In addition, there were disruptions to power and water supplies, and to telecommunications.  

The Government co-ordinated a rapid recovery operation.  Temporary accommodation for people who cannot return to their homes is being provided in tourist hotels and Government agencies are working on repairs.  By 8 July, 92% of people had their electricity supply restored and most people had water too.  Roads were clear and most businesses functioning as normal. 

A hurricane affects everybody but the reality is that, while we are “all in it together”, some people are in it deeper than others.  For the professional and managerial middle class living in solidly built houses in the neighbourhoods colloquially known as the “Heights, Gardens and Terraces”, Elsa was an inconvenience rather than a disaster.  They may have suffered disruption to electricity, water and broadband services but are unlikely to have suffered structural damage to their homes.  Lower income households and neighbourhoods are much more at risk.  

Much of the housing stock is still of wooden construction or a mixture of wood and concrete masonry.  Roof structures are often under-specified and inadequately tied to the building.  Some timber houses are not anchored to foundations.  Ironically, the shallow pitched roofs which have been typical over recent decades provide poorer protection from strong winds than the traditional, more steeply-pitched, chattel house roofs with hipped or gable ends.  Much of the stock appears in a poor state of repair and 60% – 70% of all homes are uninsured.

Barbados has made huge advances since Independence in 1966.  The economy has developed, particularly through tourism and financial services, and there is now a large middle class.  Much of this development can be explained by successive Governments’ concentration on education as the road to progress.  Success in these areas has not been matched by advances in the housing conditions of a significant proportion of the working class.  Much of the housing stock today is little better than it was when Hurricane Janet struck in 1955.  Covid-19 has highlighted the impacts on health and education of living in cramped and inadequate housing.  Housing deprivation can limit the opportunities open to young people.

The Government has announced that it will now legally implement and enforce the building code which has existed for some years.  It will also be using modern media to ensure that artisan builders and the draftsmen who design most domestic buildings are aware of the basic structural requirements and construction details that are specified for new houses or adaptations and extensions.  This is important as the people most at risk are those who cannot afford the services of qualified architects or engineers.

However, it does not address the bulk of the existing housing stock.  As elsewhere, only a relatively small number of new houses are built each year and the stock is dominated by houses built over several decades, many of which have not been well-maintained.  Retro-fitting the existing stock is the big task and the most difficult one.  The following actions are needed:

  1. A sample stock condition survey to allow an assessment of the total scale of intervention needed, together with potential costs, and to provide a basis for a property improvement strategy.
  2. A programme to strengthen existing properties with measures such as hurricane straps.  This could be assisted by discounts or tax incentives.
  3. Introduction of suitable insurance products for lower income households, with premiums reflecting any strengthening measures undertaken.
  4. Making sure that ancillary structures are addressed as well as the actual house.  Car ports, pergolas, lean-to structures, and sheds need to be robustly constructed as in a major hurricane their components could become lethal missiles.
  5. A particular issue is the traditional use of corrugated iron sheets as vertical “paling” to fence properties.  In a minor storm these blow over because they do not let the wind pass through, but in a major hurricane they will fly through the air, adding to the level of damage.  Chain-link fencing does not cause this problem.
  6. The public housing stock suffered damage from Elsa.  This reflects under-investment over many years.  A major investment programme is needed to bring this housing up to a robust standard and a funding system needs to be put in place to ensure that standards are maintained through cyclical maintenance and reactive repairs.
  7. A system is needed to deal effectively with landlords of sub-standard private property.  They should be encouraged to make improvements, or their property should be acquired by Government, using compulsory purchase powers if necessary, and brought up to an acceptable standard.
  8. Home ownership is embedded in Barbadian culture.  Everyone wants to own their “piece of the rock”.  The Tenantries Freehold Purchase Act has enabled people who would otherwise have been unable to do so to become owner-occupiers.  Many of these owners, however, lack the resources to maintain or improve their homes to modern standards.  A major housing upgrading programme is needed to improve these properties.  In hardship cases this could be funded through grants, but tax incentives could encourage investment by many owners.
  9. Measures are needed to deal with vacant, often derelict, buildings.  These can be dangerous in normal times but in a hurricane add to the general hazard.  A strategy is needed to bring back into use those capable of providing decent accommodation and to demolish the rest.
  10. The compulsory purchase system needs to deal efficiently with the problem of absentee and unknown owners.  Effectively, this means that ownership should be vested immediately with the Crown in these cases and compensation paid subsequently if previous ownership is established. 
  11. Lack of title is a significant problem as it means that people who are in all practical respects owner-occupiers, are not able to raise a mortgage to invest in their home.  There needs to be a straightforward and efficient way to resolve these issues.

Concerted action along the lines set out above is urgently necessary.  Elsa was not a one-off event.  Barbados is not protected by luck or Divine Providence.  While there is an advantage in being located to the east of the main island chain, it is inevitable that Barbados will be hit by tropical storms and hurricanes in the future.  Climate change is making the intensity and likelihood of storms stronger.  We need to adapt by strengthening our housing stock.

Sandy Penfold
Kim Penfold

July 2021