12:01am

Fri January 14, 2011
Haiti A Year Later

In Haiti's Rebuilding, Calls For Stronger Structures

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:32 am

A year ago in Haiti, a magnitude 7 earthquake turned Port-au-Prince into a death trap. Engineers say casualties could have been avoided if buildings had been built better, so as Haiti rebuilds, they're trying to improve standards. But poverty and corruption pose considerable challenges.

In the capital, there is still so much rubble on sidewalks that people walk in the streets. Everywhere buildings sag in a state of semi-collapse. When engineer Pierre Fouche returned to Port-au-Prince last year after the quake, he hardly recognized his hometown.

"When I got there, it was a shock," he said. "Basically, it was like I lost all of my landmarks."

When the quake hit, Fouche was studying earthquake engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He knew that Haiti lacked building codes, that people built houses on steep hillsides or on soft ground, and that they used shoddy materials. And now he fears the city will rebuild the same way.

"Some people, they are simply starting to reconstruct their homes because they need someplace to live," he says. "And this is actually tragic."

It's tragic because the country lacks people who know how to build for earthquakes. At the time of the quake, Fouche says, he was Haiti's only quake engineer.

Simple Techniques For Stronger Buildings

"We don't know when the next one is going to happen," Fouche warns, "and if we don't want to have 200,000 people dying, then this is something that has to be done. At some point, the government will have to do it."

The government hasn't, however. So quake engineer Andre Filiatrault at the Buffalo university has organized earthquake seminars for Haitian engineers.

Filiatrault says most of the masonry buildings he has seen in Haiti can't handle the side-to-side shaking that a quake creates — the walls develop cracks and then holes.

"And if you have too much of a hole in the wall," he explains, "it can't support the slab above, and that's where all these slabs collapse on top of each other, which we call 'pancake collapse.' "

Filiatrault says that can be fixed cheaply, with something called "confined masonry." That's a cinder-block wall where, at the ends, blocks are set like a vertical row of teeth, with every other one missing. Then concrete is poured down and over the row of teeth to make vertical columns that anchor the wall.

"You cast your column into your wall such that it is an integral part of the wall," he says, "so basically the wall becomes interlocked into the column."

Corruption And Quake Deaths

Techniques like this are simple, but Haiti has few building codes and little enforcement. It does have poverty and corruption, says Roger Bilham, a seismologist at the University of Colorado who has studied the past 30 years of earthquakes. And poverty and corruption kill because they undercut construction standards, he says. People cheat.

"You can go to a ruin, a collapsed building, with a hammer or screwdriver and test the quality of the cement," Bilham says. "If you can put your screwdriver in and write your name with it, obviously the cement is completely inadequate."

In a study in the journal Nature, Bilham says 83 percent of quake deaths from building collapse happened in countries that were especially corrupt — for example, where bribes were paid to overlook code violations.

In Haiti, Bilham says, it wasn't so much corruption as poverty that doomed so many buildings. But he suspects that may change as money to rebuild pours into the country.

"The corruption that does exist in the form of bribery, shortcuts, inexpensive materials and so on — I'm sure that's going to kick in," he says. "People are going to do whatever they can."

Filiatrault's training group from Buffalo hopes to convince Haitians to demand better buildings. Recently the Haitian Ministry of Public Works asked Filiatraut if its engineers could get training, too. And the government has just issued voluntary guidelines for better building practices.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've reporting this week on Haiti's struggle to rebuild from its earthquake a year ago that turned the capital city, Port-au-Prince, into a death trap. Earthquake engineers say many casualties could have been avoided if buildings had been built better. Now engineers are trying to improve construction standards, as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: In Port-au-Prince, there is so much rubble on sidewalks that people walk in the street. Everywhere, buildings sag in a state of semi-collapse. When engineer Pierre Fouche returned there after the quake, he hardly recognized his hometown.

Mr. PIERRE FOUCHE (Engineer): When I got there it was a shock. Basically, it was like I lost all of my landmarks.

JOYCE: When the quake hit, Fouche was studying earthquake engineering at the University of Buffalo in New York. He knew that Haiti lacked building codes, that people built houses on steep hillsides or on soft ground, that they used shoddy materials, and now he fears the city will rebuild the same way.

Mr. FOUCHE: Some people, they are simply starting to reconstruct their homes because they need someplace to live in. And this is actually tragic.

JOYCE: Tragic because the country lacks people who know how to build for earthquakes. At the time of the quake, Fouche says he was Haiti's only quake engineer.

Mr. FOUCHE: We don't know when the next one is going to happen, and if we don't want to have 200,000 people dying, then this is something that has to be done. At some point the government will have to do it.

JOYCE: The government has not, however. So quake engineer Andre Filiatrault at the University of Buffalo has organized quake seminars for Haitian engineers. Filiatrault says most of the masonry buildings he's seen in Haiti cannot handle the side to side shaking that a quake creates. The walls develop cracks and then holes.

Mr. ANDRE FILIATRAULT (University of Buffalo): And if you have too much of a hole in the wall, then it can't support the slab above, and that's where all these slabs collapse on top of each other, which we call pancake collapse.

JOYCE: Filiatrault says you can fix that cheaply with something called confined masonry. You build a cinder block wall and at each end the blocks are set like a vertical row of teeth, with every other one missing. Then you pour concrete down and over that row of teeth to make vertical columns that anchor the wall.

Mr. FILIATRAULT: You cast your column into the wall such that it's a then integral part of the wall. So basically the wall becomes interlocked into the column.

JOYCE: Techniques like this are simple, but there are few building codes in Haiti and little enforcement. What there is is poverty and corruption.

Roger Bilham is a seismologist at the University of Colorado who's studied the past 30 years of earthquakes. He says poverty and corruption kill because they undercut construction standards. People cheat.

Mr. ROGER BILHAM (Seismologist, University of Colorado): You can go to a collapsed building with a hammer or a screwdriver and test the quality of the cement. If you can put your screwdriver in and write your name in it, obviously the cement is completely inadequate.

JOYCE: In a study in the journal Nature, Bilham says 83 percent of quake deaths from building collapse have happened in countries that were especially corrupt - where bribes were paid, for example, to overlook code violations.

In Haiti, Bilham says it wasn't so much corruption as poverty that doomed so many buildings. But he suspects that may change as money to rebuild pours into the country.

Mr. BILHAM: The corruption that does exist in the form of bribery, shortcuts, inexpensive materials and so on, I'm sure that's going to kick in. People are going to do whatever they can.

JOYCE: Filiatrault's training group from the University of Buffalo is hoping to convince Haitians to demand better buildings. Recently, the Haitian Ministry of Public Works asked Filiatrault if their engineers could get training too. And the government has just issued voluntary guidelines for better building practices.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.