February 2010

What can we learn from Haiti?

Tragedy has struck Haiti again. On Tuesday, January 12, at 4:53 p.m., a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck 10 miles from the heart of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, along the fault line that stretches from the Dominican Republic to Jamaica, rendering entire quadrants of the hilly, coastal city in ruins. As of this writing, approximately 3.5 million persons out of a total population of approximately 9 million have been affected in a country roughly the size of the state of Maryland. The dead number at least 50,000, with some estimates as high as 200,000. All this in a politically plagued country trying to recover from the 2004 overthrow of former president Aristide. These are the facts.

Photo © André Souroujon

In the aftershocks, we have all been glued to the media — whether television, the Internet, or the newspaper — live witnesses to unspeakable human tragedy. Who will ever forget the images of human hands reaching out for help from the accumulated detritus of pancaked buildings, or the grief of mothers at the death of children, crushed in falling rubble? The proximity to our continent, coupled with satellite links, brought it home with horrific power.

Some help has already arrived. Yet architects, engineers, planners, and others responsible for the built environment have to wonder about the implications of this natural event for their own work: Other than the obvious acts of reconstruction required for a troubled Caribbean island, the social and political needs that lie at the heart of this particular place, and the human emotions we feel, what lessons can we take from the Haitian experience?

First, and most obviously, the Haitian earthquake underscores the necessity of building codes. Buildings killed the people of Haiti, and most were poorly constructed. In the face of such elemental forces, as much as 40 percent of major areas of the city literally fell down, leaving up to one million residents in need of shelter. The United Nations estimates that following the quake, hundreds of thousands of people were living in the streets, an untenable situation.

All types of buildings failed. Both the poor, in ramshackle housing, and the rich lost their homes. Eight hospitals were destroyed or significantly harmed. Apparently no one was exempt: The earthquake leveled the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission, a five-story building, in which 40 persons had been confirmed dead as of January 17, including the mission’s head, the Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi.

The inexorable, 30-second movement brought down hundreds of thousands of structures within and outside Port-au-Prince, whether built of unreinforced concrete, stone, concrete block, or wood. At the presidential palace, an immense wedding cake of a structure, designed in 1912 by Haitian architect Georges H. Baussan, the second floor collapsed onto the first, creating an indelible image of building failure at the highest level. President René Préval and his wife escaped unharmed.

Second, the quake underscores the importance of infrastructure. By examining a place with woefully inadequate services, their importance is heightened and clarified. The list below reports on several of the most important or obvious requirements.

Port. The port facilities at Port-au-Prince lie in shambles, the U.S. Coast Guard has reported. When a wharf collapsed, five cargo cranes, which could have aided the relief effort, lay broken and submerged, having fallen into the harbor, blocking other shipping. Without a clear port, access for large vessels, and the water, food, and life-giving aid they might bring, becomes problematic.

Airport. The Aeroport International Toussaint L’Ouverture consisted of only one runway and limited fuel supplies. Planes filled with life-giving medical supplies or medical personnel were forced to circle the small, crowded field, then sometimes diverted to other airports, such as in the Dominican Republic, where supplies could then be trucked in over the mountains, a tedious task.

Roads. Earlier studies by the World Bank stated that compared to the U.S. average of 59 percent paved roads, only 24 percent of Haiti’s roads were paved at all. The few that remained quickly became impassable when blocked by wrecked autos and building detritus.

Power. Few Haitians enjoyed electricity. Again, the World Bank estimate suggests that only 34 percent of the population had any electricity at all. The quake’s disruption to both transmission and distribution was significant, with major harm to the almost negligible communications system.

We in America feel a certain kinship to the Haitian dilemma, having recently experienced massive failure during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Images of thousands of people being herded into the New Orleans Superdome, or living on overpasses above flooded streets, or guarded by security forces, have been indelibly inscribed in our national consciousness. (Ironically, New Orleans and Louisiana have explicit, symbiotic societal, trading, and transportation history with the French territory of Sainte-Domingue, later Haiti.) There, infrastructure and government failed us — whether levees or pumps or power — so Haiti may seem closer than its literal distance of 681 miles from Miami, Florida.

If the scale of Haiti’s extreme poverty and political struggles magnify its immediate problems in the aftermath of this earthquake, it can also serve as a wake-up call to those of us in the design and building professions to mind our work. Contemporary science allows us to build almost wherever we choose, if we do not neglect the laws of building safety, and ensure the construction and maintenance of our vital infrastructure. One fact is certain: The inexorable pressure of demographics, including the accumulation of large populations in challenging natural environments, whether in hurricane zones or along fault lines, will continue. Will we be ready?

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.