Haiti disasterEngineers urge overhaul of Haiti's archaic, anarchic building practices

Published 26 January 2010

In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, building codes, if they even exist, exist on paper only; all governments in Haiti, including the present one, have been corrupt, predatory, and utterly indifferent to the welfare of the people; a recent OAS report detailed a litany of flaws in Haiti’s attitude to buildings: weak or missing reinforcement, structures on steep slopes with unstable foundations, inadequate or nonexistant inspections, poor designs, materials, and techniques; Kit Miyamoto, a California structural engineer who went to Haiti last week: “No code, no engineering, means death”

A new hospital in the Turgeau neighborhood dissolved into a pancaked stack of concrete floor slabs surrounded by broken toilets. The shell of a nearby high school rested atop its crumbled first floor. Just across Avenue Jean Paul II, a gleaming aluminum-and-glass skyscraper escaped almost unscathed.

Digicel’s headquarters, the tallest building in Haiti completed a little more than a year ago by the country’s largest phone company, stands out even more than it did before a powerful 7.0 earthquake left much of this city in ruins. A First World tower in a Third World city, it was designed using American building codes to endure 7.2 shock waves or higher. It did. “You don’t call the structural engineer in at the end of your drawing. You start with the structural engineer before it’s built,” said architect Christian Dutour, pleased after surveying his 12-story building. “Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”

The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles and Curtis Morgan write that in a way, that also explains why so many other structures in its shadow collapsed. Most buildings in Haiti go up without engineers, standards, or inspections. The earthquake is only the latest, and worst, tragedy to expose the largely unregulated and slapdash construction long accepted on the island — practices that structural engineers believe added to a staggering death toll that could reach 200,000.

While extensive death and destruction would be expected from a 7.0 temblor so close to a densely populated and dirt-poor city, earthquake experts have nonetheless been shocked by the catastrophic failure of so many prominent and critical buildings.

It was not just humble shacks and turn-of-the-previous-century icons like the historic Roman Catholic Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, but new and newly renovated schools, police stations, bank branches, high-end hotels, and hospitals. The U.S. Agency for International Development reported Thursday that 13 of 15 government ministry buildings had been destroyed.

“This was pseudo-engineering. It was terrible,”’ said Eduardo Fierro, a California-based forensic and seismic engineer who was among the first experts to survey the damage. “For the poor people who do their own building, you shouldn’t expect better,”’ said Fierro, who spoke from Santo Domingo after nearly a week in Haiti. “For the people who have a four-story building, for the Hotel Montana, a fancy hotel where all the foreign visitors stay, you should expect better. There is complete ignorance of seismic behavior.”

Charles and Morgan write that only last month, the Organization of American States (OAS) completed