FIU researchers: there’s a ‘window of opportunity’ in the Bahamas for stronger building code enforcement

Extreme Events Institute researchers analyzed results from first post-Dorian survey of Bahamians, find increased public support for safer construction, stricter code enforcement

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Most people in the Bahamas support the funding of stronger building code enforcement, based on the results of the first national survey of Bahamians conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

Hurricane Dorian was a very strong Category 5 storm when it hit and then stalled over the northwestern Bahamas islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama on Sept. 1-3.  Although the losses are still being tallied, Dorian killed at least 65 people and caused an estimated $7 billion in damages.  Less than four weeks later, interviewers from Public Domain, a Nassau-based research firm, surveyed by phone a random sample of 1,000 people across the island nation (with the exception of the hardest hit islands and people still in shelters). It was the first general public opinion survey fielded after Dorian hit, and at the request of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute (EEI), the firm added a set of questions designed to explore how Bahamians felt about building codes and building code enforcement—crucial policies for reducing future disaster losses.

That post-Dorian data is being analyzed at EEI and researchers have found that 62 percent of respondents said they would prioritize building safely over lowering costs. More pointedly, nearly 75 percent of Bahamians agreed — with 58 percent “strongly” agreeing — that government should spend more money to enforce building codes, even if it means spending less on other programs.  The margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points.

The latest findings stand in sharp contrast with responses to the same or similar disaster questions from a 2014 survey sponsored by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (and conducted by the same local firm, Public Domain).  In 2014, only 25 percent of respondents said they would prioritize safer construction over cost savings. Also, the average level of support for safer buildings, and willingness to sacrifice other priorities to pay for that safety, more than doubled in the Bahamas after Dorian.

“The contrast is remarkable.  Bahamians came to value safer, more resilient buildings to a much greater extent than they did just a few years earlier,” said Barry Levitt, FIU professor of politics and international relations and EEI Fellow. “The island’s residents are thinking differently about mitigating future hurricane risk – regardless of whether they themselves were directly harmed by Dorian.”

EEI researchers will continue to analyze survey data from the Bahamas and plan to release additional findings, which will help frame and inform larger, ongoing disaster risk reduction efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I expected post-Dorian support for disaster risk reduction to be elevated, but these results strongly validate the argument that disasters shape public opinion and open windows of opportunity for improving policy implementation,” said Richard Olson, director of EEI. “The question becomes, will that support prove to be an enduring change in public values, or will it fall back to previous levels—and if so, how quickly?  The answers have huge implications, and not just for the Bahamas.”


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