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Vulnerability to natural hazards

Jamaica is situated in a region that is prone to both earthquakes and hurricanes. It has recently been severely damaged by the strongest hurricane recorded this century in the region. It is therefore alarming to discover how little attention low-income households have given to securing their houses against potential damage from these forces. To a large degree this lack of investment is a reflection of tenure relationships. Renters expect the landlord to do the fixing up. However, it also has to do with the short time frames that people use for planning when their lives consist of a constant struggle to maintain a precarious survival. This day-to-day survival struggle militates against long-term investment and hazard mitigation unless people can be shown ways of making their houses safer without the expenditure of a great deal of cash and time.

Another factor that has resulted in minimal investment in hazard mitigation is the fact that it had been such a long time since a hurricane had really damaged Jamaica. More than half the island's population was not born when the previous serious hit by Hurricane Charlie occurred in 1951.

The low-income household survey revealed that only 7.5 per cent of female-headed household had taken any steps to safeguard their houses against hurricanes compared with 12 per cent and 13.3 per cent of male- and joint-headed households. respectively.

Insecure land tenure militates against major investment in the construction of safe housing and much of the informally-constructed housing built within low-income settlements is vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards as a result.

The siting of many low-income settlements has made them particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards and this has become a growing problem, particularly in the urban areas as informal settlement of land becomes the only available option for an increasing number of the island's population who are unable to afford the safety standards assumed within the formal sector. Most of the land that is "captured" is marginal land that is considered, by the planners, unsuitable for residential development. It is marginal because it is often prone to flooding or to land slippage.

Sometimes these locations are attractive to low-income residents because they provide a good basis for income generation. The city dumps, for instance, provide an excellent base for income generation based on recycling of waste materials, even if they are the first areas to suffer from the flood effects of heavy rains. In other cases people can simply find nowhere else to go.

A number of the women who were interviewed in depth experience the effects of natural hazards on a regular basis or have had exposure to them.


"I saw a hurricane when I was much smaller but I never take it so serious you know. When I heard about this one now. When somebody came and said 'you not battening up Miss C?' I said 'Bwoy you batten from man you don't batten from God. You can nail from man but you can't nail from God because anywhere you nail he is still there so all we have to do is just stand and look and see what will happen'.

"When me see the hurricane and when me see the housetop really lift, now me say, 'Wait Lord but you really serious', but me never move out."


"But the yard flood all the while when it rain. When it rain the yard fill up with water. Water comes down the lane and eventually drains into the gully. Sometimes the house full of pure mud."


"My parents used to live in a thatched house and I could remember in the 1951 storm we was in that thatch house.

The roof never come off because those time the room was thatch and you have to tie it with the cord."

Many of the houses that survived Hurricane Gilbert with their roofing intact were "old fashioned" houses built by traditional craftsmen who are rapidly dying out as the informal apprenticeship system is replaced by formal vocational training. Many of the old-time designs and techniques are disappearing as these craftsmen retire and die. The fact that the traditional techniques and designs were originally developed on the basis of experience of earthquakes and hurricanes, whereas the formal vocational training system has come in since the last major disaster, accounts in large measure for the absence of hurricane-mitigation techniques in recent buildings.


Megan lives in an area that floods whenever there are heavy rains. The house she bought from Houseman had to be adapted when it was moved to her spot for this reason. It had originally been designed to rest on a concrete slab floor but Megan decided, on Houseman's advice, to put the whole thing on stacked concrete blocks so that it would be raised up off the ground. A wooden floor therefore had to be installed.


The entire roof, zinc. battens. rafters and all came off one room of Deula's house during the recent hurricane. She had omitted to use any hurricane straps to tie the roof down to the wall plate. The roof has since been repaired and Deula is now using hurricane straps made of strips of recycled zinc sheeting.

One of the problems in the community where she lives was that during the hurricane looters came in from outside and stole much of the zinc. Those people who were able to grab the roofing material flying around before it was removed by thieves, often found that they had picked up somebody elses zinc rather than their own. Roofs in the area therefore look rather more patchlike than they did before but most people have rebuilt using the materials available. Their main problems now are leaking roofs and land slippage and erosion.