Charles Newman, an Emerging Architect, Reports Back from Quake-Ravaged Haiti

Charles Newman

Charles Newman

Upon my arrival in Port-au-Prince, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that this country I was arriving in had just undergone a drastic and tragic transformation. I was worried about the tragedies I would learn about, the overwhelming challenges that the Haitian people are faced with, and my own personal safety.

With all of these concerns though, I was bringing with me a set of skills that were desperately needed. I had been working with Engineers Without Borders for over a year, and knew that my time building structures in one of the most impoverished areas of Kenya would serve as a solid background for working in such a difficult environment. I supplemented this experience by attending lectures and work shops on post-earthquake damage assessment, reread culturally related texts from my time at university, and put myself through a crash course review of my French skills. I knew that I would be challenged in ways that I could not imagine—but I was optimistic and determined to help in every way that I could.

I landed in Haiti on February 26. My team consisted of a firefighter, medical student, structural engineer, three water and sanitation engineers, and myself (an emerging architect). The National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians, or NOAH, and Mercy Corps determined where would be assigned. They decided to send me and the structural engineer, Tom Sullivan, to Petit-Goâve, a village three hours west of Port-au-Prince. To our knowledge, the town’s structures had yet to be assessed in a comprehensive fashion.

We traveled by car to Petit-Goâve. After getting introduced to the mayor, we were asked to review the town’s civic structures first, followed by schools and then private properties. I would have preferred to conduct a street-by-street survey, but we accepted his request in an effort to foster a good relationship with his staff and the community. The assignment was to begin the next morning.

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We began our rounds with the Jean Francois, the city’s engineer and a resident of Petit-Goâve. With us we had ATC-20 rapid safety assessment forms, and green, yellow and red spray paint. It immediately became apparent, however, that the color-coding strategy and its intended meaning of “safe, semi-dangerous, very dangerous,” was not sufficient. The Spanish military had already marked certain structures in red for demolition, leading anything that we declared dangerous to be interpreted as “to demolish.”

As a result, Tom and I found ourselves with more responsibility than we had anticipated. The residents had lived alongside these buildings for almost two months, and were expecting answers beyond safe or unsafe. Our effort was further complicated by the locals’ desire to demolish anything that was remotely damaged. At one point it was suggested to demolish the length of an entire street, which included two undamaged buildings. It was very important for us to sympathize with their desire to eliminate the potential dangers that surrounded them and their families, but we also felt that it was our responsibility to help try to save the historic character of Petit-Goâve.

Tom and I approached each building with safety as our first concern. This was followed by a discussion about the economic and logistical limitations that would determine whether or not the building was salvageable. After coming to a consensus, one of the local members of our growing entourage would tag the building with the appropriate color.

Over the following few days of work, our relationship with Jean Francois grew into a solid partnership. Use of red paint became a delicate matter—one that involved discussions of cost and effort that would be needed for a repair, versus that which would be needed to demolish and rebuild. We traded ideas and opinions, and reached a conclusion on each structure we encountered. Each of the civic structures and public schools, while often technically challenging, served as silent acceptors of our verdict. The private schools and businesses however, were a much more complicated endeavor.

For the few private properties we reviewed, we had to leave our paint at the curb and enter with the promise of only giving our professional opinion and suggestions. At times, Jean Francois seemed an unwelcome guest as an employee of the local government. In one instance, upon approaching a private school, an argument arose, then boiled down to “They can’t find the keys to let us in.” …