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

is unreasonable to apply stateside standards to one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere.

The way to progress

They also argue that the country must change its ways — starting with essential “lifeline buildings”’ like hospitals and schools — if it hopes to weather inevitable future disasters.


Haiti has taken stabs at beefing up building codes in the past. Ironically, said architect Magloire, one expert brought in recently to work on the code died in the collapse of the Hotel Montana.

If history is a lesson, change will be difficult. Farzad Naeim, president of the board of directors of the Oakland, California-based nonprofit Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, said he is usually disappointed when he returns to devastated cities in developing countries.

“It is mind-boggling,” he said. “All the attention to earthquakes right now, in six months, is going to dim. I am practicing now in a field where the cure is known. It is not rocket science, but people go back to building the buildings that killed people.”

The OAS’s Springer said overhauling Haiti’s building code alone will not do much without broader education, retraining programs and financial support. “There is no quick, cheap or easy path to resolving the multiple issues that were so harshly exposed by last week’s earthquake,” he wrote in an e-mail in response to questions from Charles and Morgan.

Frantz Verella, Haiti’s former minister of public works, said the government must move to make all schools and critical structures quake-resistant. “We can do it,”’ he said, “with the help of the international community.”

As the devastated country struggles to fill its citizens’ basic needs, it also will require strong political will. With many of its government buildings in rubble, the Haitian government has begun looking for new offices. It has directed the minister of tourism, an architect, to lead a safety evaluation. Citibank and the United Nations, both formerly housed in buildings that suffered horrific failures, have already inquired about moving into the Digicel building.

American teams also are assisting. Mirmiran of FIU said he will join other experts in Haiti working on structural surveys and long-term planning. The goal for most buildings in Haiti, engineers say, should not be to build to the expensive standards of the Digicel building, but to simply reduce the house-of-cards collapses that claimed so many victims — the minimum standard of many quake codes. “The question is, do we have an affordable, economic solution to save lives?” Mirmiran said. “The answer is yes.”

Kit Miyamoto, a California structural engineer who went to Haiti last week to do reconnaissance work for the nonprofit Pan American Development Foundation, echoed that view. He believes that several buildings he surveyed, including the presidential palace, could be repaired and retrofitted with bracing and supports that might add 1 percent to the cost. Others say seismic fixes could add 5 to 10 percent to construction bills.

There is a lesson to be learned from the catastrophe, Miyamoto said, one that applies not just to Haiti. “No code, no engineering, means death,” he said. “Hopefully, those lives lost will trigger something.”