It is incongruous that the fifth anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, on Monday January 12, provided such a flurry of excitement and activity for me. I am just coming off the media blur. However, I was happy to participate in discussions about Haiti and voice a more positive perspective on our deserving neighbor than the media usually portrays.
Throughout January I will post all of the articles and interviews I did surrounding January 12. Today I want to thanks my friends at WBUR: Fred Thys, Kelly Horan, Anthony Brooks, Frannie Carr, and Mark Degon. Anthony interviewed me on Radio Boston and the station published the following essay on WBUR Cognoscenti, with an accompanying audio commentary.
On Shaky Ground: Haiti, Five Years Later
Five years ago today, January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti. We’ll never know how many died; precise statistics are difficult in that imprecise country. The official toll is 316,000. Other estimates are smaller, yet still in six figures. The following month Chile experienced an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and 523 people died (USGS) – a count as precise as Chile’s stringent building codes. The comparative math from these two events is staggering: Chile’s earthquake was 60 times more powerful than Haiti’s, yet the Haiti suffered 500 times more deaths.
I had visited Haiti the summer before the earthquake and fallen in love with the Magic Island’s casual charm. As an architect, I understood that shoddy building construction was responsible for most earthquake-related deaths. Haiti’s long tradition of concrete construction, excellent at supporting direct pressure but weak if pulled or shaken, exacerbated the tragedy. Concrete requires steel reinforcing to withstand forces from all directions, but since steel is expensive and building codes nonexistent in Haiti, underreinforced concrete crumbled when the earth shook. People were crushed.
My desire to contribute to Haiti’s reconstruction led me to design two buildings in Grand Goave, a town ten miles west of the epicenter. The Gengel family from Rutland, MA built an orphanage to honor their daughter who died in the earthquake; Mission of Hope, a Haitian-based organization with strong Massachusetts’ ties, built a new school. Boston-area engineers and craftsmen designed innovative earthquake-resistant structures and trained local Haitians how to make traditional concrete construction stronger. After a few more visits, Haiti infiltrated my psyche and by 2012 I left my stateside job to supervise construction and live there half-time.
Each day in Haiti was ripe with surprise, wonder, and frustration. Local women collected the stumps our excavation unearthed to make precious charcoal. We vied with other aid groups for scarce construction machinery. We built our own concrete block plant to cast stronger blocks. We mixed concrete by hand, in simple ratios of cement bags to buckets of sand and gravel. Concrete floor slabs, that might take eight guys and line of ready-mix trucks six hours to pour in Boston, required two hundred men working 40 hours straight, day and night. At six dollars a day, labor was cheap and plentiful, while materials were expensive and machinery rare.
It took Sisyphean effort to complete these buildings. The orphanage is a quarter mile up a hill so steep that trucks delivering reinforcing couldn’t climb the grade. Laborers carried over 100,000 pounds of steel uphill on their shoulders. I calculated over 1250 hours of brutal hauling. At a total cost us less than $1000 in wages.
The school and orphanage have been open for over a year. We envisioned them as prototypes of Haiti’s vernacular construction reinterpreted to withstand earthquakes. Unfortunately they proved too expensive to become a new standard. Before the quake, Haitian buildings cost about $25 per square foot. Post-earthquake inflation has doubled that price. Our engineered buildings cost even more – $75 per square foot. Compared to U.S. construction, this is cheap. But Haitians struggling to feed, clothe, and educate their children cannot justify buying sturdy two-dollar block from our factory when they can mix sand and gravel with a handful of cement and a bucket of water to form sun-dried units at half the cost. These inferior block crumble under the slightest pressure, but tomorrow’s earthquake is a distant rumble compared with today’s growling stomach.
We created two sturdy buildings in Haiti, but like most philanthropic groups, we fell sort of the larger objective: helping Haiti become self-sufficient. Transforming a subsistence economy into a productive one requires incentives that reinforce each other to improve the overall quality of life. Everyone agrees that Haiti needs better education, more jobs, and transparent government. From my particular perspective, Haiti also needs to adopt – and enforce – building codes. Codes would require better construction materials and improve construction practices. The increased cost of higher standards would eventually be absorbed by an expanding economy. And many more children would be protected against the next earthquake than our school and orphanage can ever shelter.