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In Haiti's Rebuilding, Calls For Stronger Structures

Haitians watch the L.A. County Search and Rescue working at a collapsed building in downtown Port-au-Prince, Jan. 16, 2010. Weak walls allow for a "pancake collapse" like this one, one engineer says.
David Gilkey
Haitians watch the L.A. County Search and Rescue working at a collapsed building in downtown Port-au-Prince, Jan. 16, 2010. Weak walls allow for a "pancake collapse" like this one, one engineer says.

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.