Many Haiti buildings pose hazard

Countless buildings pancaked into a
heap of dust and rubble with the powerful earthquake that hit Haiti last month.
But thousands of buildings are still standing — some of them structures that
shouldn’t be occupied.

American engineers are now going
through them, assessing damage and often telling those inside to find another
place to live and work. It’s a tough bit of advice in a desperately poor
country, and it demonstrates the challenges Haitians face.

At the Mixed Assembly of God, a
school and church in Port-au-Prince, elderly congregants raise their arms to
the sky and sing for a better day. Their evangelical church still stands. So do
the cinderblock additions that housed classrooms for neighborhood children.

But fallen walls, and egg-shell
cracks across those still standing, foretell trouble: Another strong tremor
could mean a complete collapse.

Darlene Clovis is a Haitian-American,
Creole-speaking mechanical engineer from New Jersey. She volunteered to assess
damage, and she says an annex that serves as a classroom is so seriously
damaged that she won’t step inside — even as Pastor Celestin Jean Robert urged
her to.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not going
in,’ ” Clovis remembers.

The 28-year-old normally works for
the Department of Defense. And on this day, she and Craig Totten, a 39-year-old
structural engineer at Seattle-based KPFF, an engineering firm, are going from
school to school.

Poor construction

As they chip at a wall, Totten says
they’re examining the integrity of the cinderblocks.

“Mainly this type of construction
is unreinforced masonry blocks with concrete columns and floors. So really what
we’re looking to see is what kind of damages occurred in the masonry to see if
it’s decreased the capacity of the building to resist a big aftershock,”
Totten says.

So far, the outlook is not good.

UN officials say perhaps 20 percent
of the city’s structures collapsed. And perhaps 80 percent of those still
standing suffered serious damage.

“Shocking number, isn’t
it?” Totten says. “It’s going to take a decade for this city to
recover.”

The results from their surveys, and
those from other teams of volunteer engineers, will go to the Haitian
government. It will be up to Haitian inspectors to then condemn buildings or
give the green light for their use.

Totten says that what he and Clovis
have seen, in building after building, is soft mortar, poorly mixed concrete
and rickety columns. The cinderblocks are made from material so grainy that it
peels away with your fingernails.

No wonder some of the buildings
that collapsed looked like they’d been pulverized by some huge hammer, Totten
says.

“The shaking they actually
got, the ground accelerations they had here, were not that severe. There was a
lot of damage here, but if it had been closer to the city, if it had been shallower,
I think there would’ve been a lot more buildings down than what we’ve actually
seen,” Totten says.

Shaky school buildings

At the Community Evangelical
School, in a densely packed neighborhood, the kids are not back.

Francillon Eliacin, the principal,
has been told that the third floor needs big repairs. He is not surprised.

“Maybe they didn’t take care
about [that] when they were doing the construction. They didn’t do it according
to a rule. That’s what we do in Haiti all the time. We just build, but we don’t
really take care about what we’re doing,” Eliacin says.

That lack of attention to detail
could have brought down the Les Freres Saint Cyr school. It’s still standing,
but Clovis tells the principal, Marc Sincere, that it needs major repairs, and
until then no one should be inside.

WORLDhaitiSTORY

A poor neighbourhood shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, 12 January 12.
Submitted

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