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UBs MCEER sets foundation for rebuilding Haiti, one engineer at a time

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A new building on the Quisqueya University (UniQ) campus in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, provides some of the most powerful evidence yet that Haiti’s engineering community, with international assistance from the University at Buffalo and MCEER, is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

The building is the first on the campus to be built according to seismic design principles, a direct result of the building’s architect and engineer attending earthquake engineering seminars held by UB and UniQ that began shortly after a devastating earthquake struck the island on Jan. 12, 2010. They are among the more than 500 engineers – estimated to be half of all working engineers in the Haitian capital – who are the first in their profession to have received this training.

“The new building is more than symbolic,” says Andre Filiatrault, PhD, curriculum coordinator for the UniQ-UB/MCEER seminars, former director of UB’s Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) and a leader in international post-earthquake damage assessment and the education of Haitian engineers.

“It was closely inspired by one of the detailed examples presented in one of our seminar programs. For example, the type, positioning and geometry of the seismic force-resisting elements are the same as those discussed in class, and both the architect and engineer were trained in these seminars,” he says.

Prior to the completion of the building, classes had been held in a large tent, where temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The building reflects the dawn of a new reality in Haiti, where there had been no building codes and no legal requirements to prepare plans and submit them for approval by a government-run building department.

That began to change just eight days after the 2010 quake, when Filiatrault and UB’s MCEER assembled and deployed the first team of French-speaking structural engineers to Haiti to conduct building safety inspections at the request of the United Nations. MCEER and UniQ then began reaching out to Haitian engineers, with the first seminar held in May 2010, followed by three more held since then, including the most recent held in August. All seminars and materials were in French, a key part of their success.

“It was clear from the beginning that much work needed to be done,” Filiatrault recalls. “Haitian universities didn’t teach earthquake engineering and there are no government-enforced building codes or professional licensing requirements for practicing engineers in Haiti, so we established an educational program to teach Haitian engineers about seismic mitigation in design and construction.”

Filiatrault is currently helping Haitian engineers write a model charter for Haiti’s new Earthquake Engineering Association. A master’s degree program in earthquake engineering for all the francophone nations in the Caribbean is also being developed by UniQ and UB MCEER.

The goal of the MCEER-UniQ partnership and seminars is to help Haiti establish its own community of earthquake engineers. With an estimated 1,000 practicing engineers in Port-au-Prince, MCEER has trained 560 participants, more than 50 percent of that city’s engineering population, in methods of earthquake-resistant design, Filiatrault says. In addition, 58 engineers from Haiti’s Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications have participated in the seminars; their presence will help ensure informed government oversight of the rebuilding process ahead.

“All of these efforts will add up to a safer environment for the people of Haiti, where an estimated 316,000 lives were lost in the January 2010 earthquake — a death toll that could have been substantially reduced through the use of fundamental seismic design principles,” says Filiatrault.

“The partnership between UniQ and UB MCEER was a strategic effort to provide Haitian engineers with the tools to rebuild their country,” says Sofia Tangalos, MCEER senior program officer for Education/Outreach Activities and Information Services, adding that the seminars have been an effective collaboration between UB, MCEER and UniQ. The key UniQ leaders include Jacky Lumarque, Quisqueya University rector, and Evenson Calixte, dean of the School of Science, Engineering and Architecture.

And two UB students – both Haitians – have advanced their education and that of seminar attendees through their participation in the project. Doctoral candidate Pierre Fouché, who initially came to UB to study earthquake engineering with the hope of helping his country avert such a disaster, has served as a seminar instructor since the program’s start and is now helping the island to rebuild. Gael Lamothe, an undergraduate civil engineering student, used UB’s Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory to study typical Haitian construction materials (cinder blocks, mortar, steel rebar) to compare their strength to that of the same materials used in the U.S. His study found that the Haitian materials did not meet U.S. standards, information has been incorporated into UniQ-UB/MCEER seminars.

Two more seminars are expected to take place in 2012, followed by the proposed launch of Haiti’s first earthquake engineering master’s degree program at UniQ, which is being developed by MCEER and UB’s Office of International Education in collaboration with UniQ. For more information, visit https://mceer.buffalo.edu/education/UniQ/default.asp.

The UniQ-UB/MCEER partnership reflects UB’s strategic strength in mitigation and response to extreme events that has been identified in the UB 2020 strategic plan for academic, research and service excellence.

Founded in 1986, MCEER, headquartered at the University at Buffalo, is a national center of excellence in advanced technology applications dedicated to reducing losses from earthquakes and other hazards, and to improving disaster resilience. One of three such centers in the nation established by the National Science Foundation, MCEER has been funded principally over the past two decades with more than $67 million from NSF, more than $47 million from the State of New York and more than $34 million from the Federal Highway Administration. Additional support comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other state governments, academic institutions, foreign governments and private industry.