Page B1.3. 07 April 2010                     
ArchitectureWeek - Building Department
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Haiti Earthquake — Looking for Lessons


Walter Mooney of the USGS, who also visited Chile after the quake there, says the lower death toll in Chile may also have had something to do with the fact that the earthquake built in a crescendo-like manner, which gave Chileans about 20 seconds to get out of their homes after the shaking started. In contrast, Haitians had only about 5 seconds, because the quake there erupted with greater speed.

In addition to these factors, and Haiti's lack of building codes and dearth of seismic building requirements, poor construction practices and materials are thought to have contributed to the massive destruction and loss of life.

For instance, Haitian concrete is reportedly made using informal practices, such as mixing with excess or poorly cleaned sand and even with salt water. This can undermine the structural integrity of the buildings because the salt weakens the concrete, says Curt Edwards, who led a weeklong delegation from the American Society of Civil Engineers in late February.

Edwards says the city looked like a war zone, with the open-air camps, big piles of trash and rubble everywhere, and people demolishing building by hand with hammers and other rudimentary tools. He says the only heavy equipment he saw was outside the capital, where a road crew continued paving a highway despite the nearby wreckage.

The damage to the country's infrastructure, however, wasn't as substantial, simply because there wasn't a lot of infrastructure to begin with, Edwards says.

Haiti's principal port in Port-au-Prince sustained the most serious damage of any infrastructure, but temporary fixes at the port and the airport were already in place by the time his team arrived. A portion of the country's electrical grid was knocked out and has yet to be fully restored, and a telecommunications tower was among the larger buildings to collapse.

Rebuilding Yet to Begin

So far, rebuilding plans have barely begun to be formulated. Little or no construction has started, and talk of reconstruction has been largely limited to conferences in Miami earlier in March, and the UN's international donor conference in New York City on March 31.

Habitat for Humanity, an international Christian aid organization with an active operation in Haiti, was set to start erecting its first transitional shelters in late March in the town of Caberet, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Port-au-Prince, and to continue on to Léogâne and to Carrefour, another hard-hit community west of Port-au-Prince, as soon as the materials cleared customs, according to Mario Flores, director of disaster response for Habitat for Humanity International.

"We are distributing emergency shelter kits [to 10,000 families] while at the same time about to start the building of transitional shelter units, and finalizing permanent core housing plans," Flores said in a March 22 email. The agency is expecting to provide some form of assistance to about 50,000 Haitian families.

As relief efforts drag on, "my personal fear is a lot of the aid will be squandered on short-term shelter," says Peter Haas, executive director of Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that is advocating for rebuilding the country with new housing that is both environmentally friendly and affordable.

The U.S. Green Building Council, meanwhile, has referred its members who want to help to the William J. Clinton Foundation.

The UN's Special Envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton has used his foundation to mount a high-profile campaign to raise funds for and orchestrate relief efforts, but the foundation has not made public any firm rebuilding plans.

The situation in Haiti remains terribly desperate for hundreds of thousands of displaced survivors. Relief is still an overwhelming priority.

And because there is still a lot more to know about the Haiti earthquake, looking for the lessons to learn remains an open, continuing process.

Editor's Note —

Lessons from the devastating Haiti earthquake will continued to be extended and refined for years to come. But this much is clear:

Many countries around the world are in the same position today as Haiti was on January 11, 2010. Across the Third World — but even in many parts of the United States, with six states having no overall codes, for instance — there are tremendous gaps.

Around the world, as in Haiti, at the baseline there is a lack of realistic, comprehensive mapping and communication of potential natural hazards that can impact the built environment. There is a widespread lack of effective hazard zoning to avoid specific local dangers. And there is insufficient quality control in design and building to ensure buildings and infrastructure will be remain safe in the course of foreseeable events.

Would we wish to turn back the clock, if we could, and make better preparations to protect the more than 500,000 killed and injured on January 12, 2010?

With regard to future events, we still have that chance. While relief continues in Haiti, what are the next steps we should take, to be better off next time?

Christine MacDonald is the author of Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, Lyons Press, 2008.   More by Christine MacDonald

This article includes technical contributions by Kevin Matthews, Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek.


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ArchWeek Image

A largely intact reinforced-concrete structure shows how rebar is sometimes left protruding from a concrete surface to provide structural tie-ins for future additions.
Photo: Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) Extra Large Image

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The five-story Hotel Montana, in the hills of Pétionville, was heavily damaged and many sections collapsed during the January 12 earthquake.
Photo: UN Photo/ Logan Abassi Extra Large Image

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The USGS/ EERI Advance Reconnaissance Team found that smooth steel with inadequately sized hooks was used in reinforcing the concrete of the Hotel Montana.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/ Earthquake Engineering Research Institute

ArchWeek Image

Areas of the Hotel Montana lobby remained intact. Begun in 1946, the hotel received extensive additions and modifications in subsequent years.

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Map of Haiti showing the estimated Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) distribution for the January 12 earthquake.
Image: USGS Extra Large Image

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A concrete slab hangs precariously over the side of a reinforced-concrete structure in Port-au-Prince.
Photo: AIDG

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An engineer evaluates a concrete column in Port-au-Prince.
Photo: AIDG Extra Large Image

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A significant proportion of buildings in Port-au-Prince have either collapsed or are damaged enough to require repairs.
Photo: AIDG Extra Large Image


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