I am writing this on the plane from San Francisco to Port-Au-Prince, my fifth such trip to Haiti following the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake there in January 2010 – over 18 months ago.
Since that time I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in the post-earthquake recovery process, which has provided many dramatic lessons in the value of seismic resiliency, not just from a structural engineering perspective, but from a recovery process and planning perspective. Considering the many reported problems with local construction techniques and materials, and the relative absence of local government planning and approval processes, one can nevertheless see common threads between the halting post-earthquake recovery process in Haiti and faster recoveries in more developed countries.
I have traveled to other earthquake-hit areas to do similar work in the past, and it doesn’t take long to see that the problems in Haiti are worse. In contrast to the situations in Japan, New Zealand and Chile, not only were many of Haiti’s larger structures damaged or lost, but hundreds of thousands of citizens were suddenly made homeless due to collapse of their masonry homes.
Fast forward 18 months, and Haiti still has tens of thousands who are homeless. Many millions in aid money have been given by governments and NGOs around the world to help relieve the problem, but progress is slow; constructing that many new houses simply takes too much time. Engineers like myself and others working to fix the homelessness problem are coming to realize this. It was on my first trip to Haiti that I ran across a non-profit organization called Build Change that aims to get Haitians back into safe homes as soon as possible. We teamed to take a realistic look at the situation, why homelessness was still so large a problem, and what remedies would work most effectively.
To fix the problem you first have to properly understand its cause – it is not due to a lack of housing. A large portion of the houses that existed before the earthquake remain. Many of them are only lightly damaged and some went more or less unscathed. The problem is that following any major earthquake, but particularly one as traumatic as occurred in Haiti, there is a broad lack of trust in the building stock, and many times this is for good reason. People will go so far as to sleep in a car or a tent instead of reoccupying a green-tagged building. This is particularly common when damage is highly visible, such as cracks in masonry walls. Occupants want some assurance that the building is “safe to occupy” – particularly when aftershocks continue to rattle nerves.
The mindset of many aid organizations to date has been to tear down these old houses and build newer, structurally safer homes for the displaced residents. That is an excellent goal to be sure, but it’s slow, expensive and very difficult to manage, given property issues and legal red tape. In large part, that is why the homelessness problem hasn’t yet been solved and why there remain thousands living in the camps.
Furthermore, after an NGO has finished a housing reconstruction project, they leave, taking their expertise and access to materials with them, leaving little behind. Due to various factors, such as a lack of available lumber and cost of materials, the western-style homes that well-meaning NGOs construct in Haiti won’t survive the yearly storms and tropical conditions. Additionally, this method of recovery doesn’t achieve the other, desperately important, goal needed to lift Haiti out of poverty – a sustainable and safe, locally driven construction industry. For the foreseeable future, that industry is likely to be based primarily around masonry and reinforced concrete.
Getting people back in their homes – evaluation and retrofitting
When I teamed up with Build Change late last year, we wanted to figure out a way to make use of the many thousands of empty buildings that remained. We figured that repairing and replacing components within a home, rather than replacing the whole home, would be a much faster and much less expensive way to get people out of the tent camps.
We got to work developing a comprehensive training program that would allow the Haitian people to do the work using local engineers, local contractors and the individual homeowners themselves. A general retrofit procedure was created and an initial 58 Haitian engineers from the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation were trained. I was the primary teacher and led two one-week classes, sharing with the locals the new designs that Build Change had done, and also general training on retrofitting. All the presentation materials I had generated – the lesson plans, examples, and tools – needed translation. At first, teaching was slow and tedious, but as the class got the hang of what we were doing, things sped up from there and the language barrier wasn’t so bad. They were very eager to learn, eager to start repairing, retrofitting and getting people back in their homes. As I said at the beginning, I’m happy to be flying there again to run another group of students.
Haitian residential and commercial buildings are predominantly one-to-three story confined or unreinforced concrete masonry with reinforced concrete floor slabs and roofing systems that range from concrete slabs to corrugated metal to a couple of draped blankets. Although this type of construction is unsafe – particularly so in a seismically active area – it is still common in Haiti because it’s inexpensive and protects against the elements fairly well.
A building evaluation itself is a three-step process. First, the trained engineer needs to identify the structural deficiencies in the building; we use ASCE 31 and 41 to identify them. Next, the engineers must design, on a case-by-case basis, the best solutions to the identified problems. For instance, a wall might need thickening with concrete plaster to make it stronger, or an entirely new wall may be needed for a large room. Other hazards, such as improperly made stairs or poorly located porches, may need to be bolstered. Every house will have its own unique challenges that must be addressed; there is never only one way to strengthen a building. Lastly, local engineers have to bring in outside help from contractors and others with know-how to get the process done quickly. The engineers are trained to work with the owners and make it convenient.
A homeowner-driven recovery for the local economy and how it gets funded
This process promotes a homeowner-driven recovery. Once the system is solidly in place, Build Change or another NGO will fund homeowners directly, who will then drive the construction process themselves. It’s all designed to be accessible for the average Haitian family. People working with Build Change and other organizations train the local engineers to perform these evaluations. They in turn give technical assistance to homeowners to make sure it’s done correctly and so that they feel safe returning home.
There are a few different models of funding. Financing for homeowners for reconstruction materials and labor may be provided by homeowners themselves, the Haitian government, microfinance institutions and the donor community. Much of the money comes from NGOs that have already collected millions for aid.
To date, many NGOs and the UN have focused strictly on repair. Others have been funding the construction of new homes. The retrofitting projects are only now getting off the ground (an NGO will fund that owner directly, and then the owner drives the construction and retrofit process with help and technical assistance from trained local engineers). This provides a better method of recovery, not only for the homeowner, but also economically because money is injected into construction and contractor work, and directly to the engineers
Getting it done on time
More NGOs are seeing the merits of our methods and are getting on board, preparing to launch similar efforts. Everyone is now realizing that repairing and retrofitting is the fastest way to get people back into homes. There are substantially fewer complications because you’re dealing with an existing building. There are no property requirements, no history to dig through, no legal red tape, and you already know who owns the building.
Haiti is now beginning its second wet season since the quake. I was there at the start of the last one, and it’s not a pretty picture. When it rains it pours in Port-Au-Prince. Dirty water and sewage run through the streets, washing debris and everything else with it. The water floods through the camps and life becomes even more miserable. The wet season was a big factor in the last major cholera outbreak, so getting people back into proper housing quickly is important to preventing another outbreak. With the right tools and the right methods, we can empower homeowners with the knowledge and resources to be confident that their families will be safe so they can come home. It must be done soon.
P.E., Mark Sinclair, S.E., is and principal with Degenkolb Engineers, a San Francisco-based firm specialized in the design and seismic strengthening of buildings. He can be reached at email@example.com.