Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project
Implemented by the Organization of American States
Unit of Sustainable Development and Environment
for the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the Caribbean Regional Program

The Natural Hazards Project component was financed by the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO)
OAS-ECHO School Vulnerability Reduction Program


School/Shelter Hazard Vulnerability Reduction Resource Page

Why are School Buildings Important?

School buildings often serve multiple purposes in a community. For most of the day, they house one of our most precious resources, our children. In addition to their role as learning centers, they may serve as gathering places for community events and fundraisers, meeting places for clubs and religious organizations, storage places for books and other technical equipment, and public shelters in emergencies. When a school building is vulnerable to natural hazards, the welfare of the entire community is at risk.

The vulnerability of school facilities must not be seen only in terms of the need to prevent catastrophic damage that may destroy the buildings. It is also necessary to prevent lesser damage that may affect the continuity of the services they provide. For example, if a school is unusable, the children will have to go to other schools, often in shifts, and their education suffers.

The Role of School Buildings in Disasters

When an extreme natural event is expected, emergency shelters, often school buildings, may be opened to house the local population and keep them out of harm's way. In these situations, we rely on the structural integrity of the building to protect the population being served from the elements. We also rely on emergency shelters after a disaster strikes, to temporarily house populations whose homes have been destroyed or are no longer safe because of damage from hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions.

Why are School Buildings Vulnerable?

In Latin America and the Caribbean, many school buildings are gifts from foreign governments or donor organizations. These funding agencies do not always take into consideration the natural hazards prevalent in the recipient country and the schools, therefore, may not be built with specific hazard vulnerability criteria in mind.

In addition, schools are often built on marginal pieces of land owned by the government that are unsuitable for commercial or agricultural use. All too often, school buildings are situated in vulnerable areas because proper site-selection criteria were not applied.

It is estimated that more than one million classrooms in Latin America and the Caribbean are vulnerable to natural hazards. We owe it to our children to provide them with a safe learning environment.

Examples of Mitigation Measures

Disaster mitigation can be defined as any measure taken before an event aimed at decreasing or eliminating its impact. There are two kinds:

  1. Non-structural mitigation refers to elements of the building that do not belong to the load-bearing system. It reduces risk by means of such actions as land-use planning, early warning systems, insurance policies, legislation and regulatory measures such as zoning and building codes, and education and training activities such as evacuation plans, drills, and preparedness curricula.
  2. Structural mitigation consists of measures that involve the creation/erection of physical structures. Some examples are levees, drainage systems, retaining walls, earthquake bracing systems, and hurricane straps and shutters.

Retrofitting is defined as the strengthening of a building after its original construction.

How to Reduce Vulnerability

Ideally, vulnerability to natural hazards should be considered before construction begins. It is estimated that mitigation against natural hazards adds less than 10 percent to the capital cost of the entire project at the time of initial construction. Mitigation for earthquake-prone areas is typically more costly than mitigation against wind and rain. Planners and designers need to ask themselves the following questions to determine whether mitigation is cost-effective:

  1. What is the anticipated lifetime of the structure being built?
  2. What are the intended uses of the building? Will it be used as a shelter?
  3. What hazards are the building exposed to?
  4. How often is each type of hazard expected to occur within the lifetime of the structure?

For example, if the probability that a significant earthquake will strike an area is once every 500 years and the last earthquake was 100 years ago, it may not be necessary to construct a building that can survive an earthquake of 7.5 on the Richter scale. The decision whether or not to mitigate against disasters, and to what extent, is a complex one that should not be taken lightly or be based purely on cost. Planners must decide how much risk they are willing to take.

Steps to Reduce the Vulnerability of School Buildings to Natural Hazards

With this in mind, the OAS developed a three-part approach to reducing the vulnerability of school and shelter buildings to natural hazards, focusing for the moment on infrastructure rather than public participation and academic aspects of vulnerability reduction, though these are equally important. The School Vulnerability Reduction Program was divided into the following three components:

  1. The Development of National Plans to Reduce Vulnerability of School Buildings to Natural Hazards
  2. The Survey of Existing School Buildings to Create Vulnerability Profiles
  3. The Development of School Maintenance Plans

The results of this three part process were used in the preparation of project profiles for investment in school/shelter retrofit.

In September 1997, the Caribbean Disaster Mitigation Project (CDMP), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Natural Hazards Project (NHP), funded by the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), began jointly implementing a pilot program on school vulnerability reduction in the Eastern Caribbean using the above mentioned strategy. The countries involved were Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Products of this project are available as examples of each of the steps in a school vulnerability reduction program. Detailed information is available in a progress bulletin describing this activity.

1. Development of National Plans to Reduce the Vulnerability of School Buildings to Natural Hazards

Ministries of education are not the only institutions responsible for school design, construction, repair, maintenance, and rebuilding after a disaster. Ministries of finance, the departments of public works and planning, the disaster preparedness office, and community organizations also play an important role. By developing a National Plan to Reduce the Vulnerability of School Buildings to Natural Hazards, a country can clearly define the role of each organization and institution involved. This helps to avoid duplication of efforts and promotes understanding and cooperation among and between all the parties.

The OAS approach to a national plan focuses on policies, processes, projects and preparedness.





Under the OAS pilot project in the Caribbean, National Plans were developed for Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and St. Kitts & Nevis.

2. Survey of School/Shelter Buildings to Create Vulnerability Profiles

In many countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it is difficult to obtain information about the condition of school buildings. The record-keeping systems often do not allow easy access to basic information about school or shelter buildings such as the date of construction, design type, as-built drawings, or the donor institution that financed the construction.

Before we can attack the problem of vulnerable buildings, the first step is to create a database or profile of the existing stock of school buildings. It is necessary to know what types of hazards are prevalent in the area and how the building will perform if faced with these hazards. The OAS developed a three-part survey form (Seismic Hazard Survey Part I, Seismic Hazard Survey Part II, and Wind Hazard Survey) that helps to build a profile of school buildings and evaluates their vulnerability to wind and seismic hazards. Once this information is collected, a strategy can be developed and priorities set to retrofit or upgrade the buildings.

In the Caribbean pilot project, a master manual of standards for the retrofitting or construction of schools/shelters and for estimating the costs was developed, as were individual reports describing results of property survey in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Kitts. Photos of selected school buildings are available for Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and St. Kitts.

3. Maintenance of School Buildings

A structure that is not properly maintained is more vulnerable to natural disasters. Unfortunately, school buildings are often poorly maintained and little money, if any, is typically set aside for maintenance in recurring budgets. As part of an OAS initiative with the ECHO, a Maintenance Manual for School Buildings in the Caribbean was developed for non-technical staff (school principals, headmasters, and teachers). The manual contains a series of checklists and hints on how to prolong the life of school buildings. Modified versions of the maintenance manual mentioned above were developed for Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and St. Kitts and Nevis as a result of the OAS pilot project.

As a general rule of thumb, the OAS recommends that the annual maintenance budget for school buildings be about 4% of the contemporary capital cost of the building and equipment, assuming that the building is in good shape. School maintenance should become a routine activity like changing the oil in a car or visiting the dentist for a six month cleaning.

Other Activities in School Vulnerability Reduction

The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 1990-2000 the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). Further to this, IDNDR declared 1993 the Year of Natural Hazard Vulnerability Reduction in Schools and Hospitals. In that year, the Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment (USDE) of the OAS launched its first school vulnerability reduction programs in Central America. Projects have been carried out in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Building on the Plan of Action of the Summit on Sustainable Development held in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in December 1996, a Conference for the Mitigation of Socio-Natural Disasters was held in Caracas, Venezuela, in September 1997. At this conference, a Hemispheric Action Plan for Vulnerability Reduction in the Education Sector to Socio-Natural Disasters was drawn up and adopted. As a follow-up, the Natural Hazards Project (NHP) hosted a Virtual Conference on the Hemispheric Plan for Disaster Reduction of the Education Sector the week of October 19-23, 1998. The conference was co-sponsored by IDNDR and the Comité Dominicano de Mitigación de Desastres with technical support from the Emergency Information Infrastructure Partnership (EIIP). Its purpose was to promote the implementation of the "Hemispheric Action Plan for Vulnerability Reduction in the Education Sector", the components of which include academic aspects, citizen participation and physical infrastructure.

Working with local organizations and school groups, the nongovernmental organization Partners of the Americas (POA) has helped communities develop school emergency plans and trained students and teachers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru to prepare for natural disasters. In addition, the U.S. Peace Corps' Crisis Corps is considering expanding its efforts to include disaster preparedness. In collaboration with NHP and POA, the Crisis Corps may implement a community-based retrofitting project to reduce the vulnerability of school infrastructure to natural hazards.

Take the Initiative

Latin America and the Caribbean are no strangers to the forces of mother nature. While we cannot prevent natural events from occurring, we can minimize the impact on property, through mitigation and proper planning, . With each natural event, we gain valuable experience as we learn, sometimes through trial and error, how to be better prepared. Advances in technology have enabled us to make better predictions and forecast the paths of natural events. Many studies and training resources are also available to aid us. While the media and many donor organizations tend to focus on disaster response and recovery, it makes more sense to concentrate our efforts on mitigation to avoid future tragedy. Lending institutions such as the Caribbean Development Bank are taking a leading role by providing mitigation loans to retrofit school buildings in the Eastern Caribbean.

Hazard mitigation is not the responsibility of government agencies alone. Small, inexpensive measures can be taken to reduce vulnerability in the education sector that can make a great impact. Simple things like wrapping textbooks in plastic bags and storing them a few meters off of the floor at the end of the school year may save thousands of dollars if wind and torrential rain from a hurricane flood a classroom. Everyone has a role to play in this important initiative.

Further information on training and technical materials related to disaster management is available from the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Disaster Information Center (CRID) and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CDMP home page: Project Contacts

Page Last Updated: 20 April 2001