Haiti's Lessons


April 2010

Haiti's Lessons

PEs who responded to the disaster in Port-au-Prince are returning home with lessons on how engineering can prevent future tragedies.



Haiti Earthquake
Photo Credit: Richard Yuras
Unstable building
Photo Credit: Andre Filiatrault

On January 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti. Then came 5.9-magnitude aftershocks, large enough to be considered earthquakes of their own. February 27, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of Chile, with strong aftershocks—the largest at 6.9—hitting in March as the new president was being sworn in. And on March 8, a 5.9 quake shook eastern Turkey.

Experts say earthquake frequency isn't increasing—rather, our ability to measure and report on quakes is, along with settlement in cities on fault lines. When buildings aren't constructed to withstand seismic events, as in Haiti, a large-scale tragedy results.

In Haiti, more than 200,000 people perished in the quake. But in Chile, the 500-times stronger earthquake resulted in a death toll of only about 500. That's due to a history of earthquake expertise and "a culture of demanding good seismic performance," says Marc Eberhard, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Washington. Eberhard traveled to Haiti at the end of January and was the lead author on a report from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.

Haiti lacks the earthquake engineering knowledge of Chile—and that's where PEs can help. But they're also contributing in other ways, from serving with rescue teams to evaluating buildings so that terrified residents can return to their homes. Here are a few of the PEs who have lent a hand and what they've learned.


Eduardo Fierro, P.E.Eduardo Fierro, P.E.
BFP Engineers Inc.

Two hours after learning about the quake, Eduardo Fierro bought a plane ticket to the Dominican Republic and then chartered a private plane to Haiti. He was one of the first engineers to arrive.

"I'm a person who always goes to see the earthquake damage, because there are perishable things you will not see a month or even two weeks later," says the head of the California consulting firm, who has lectured on seismic design in the Dominican Republic since 2003.

Fierro arrived in Haiti on January 14. There were "no customs, no immigration, nothing. People [asked] 'Are you here to help? Come in.'"

Downtown was "a devastation zone," he says. "Every other building was collapsed." He saw no search and rescue teams, police presence, clean-up crews, heavy equipment, or food and aid stations.

Fierro's engineering findings, which he wrote up with a colleague in a report for the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, a nine-campus collaboration that eventually sponsored his trip, mentioned the lack of:

  • seismic detailing in Haitian construction;
  • building codes or enforcement of codes;
  • inspections; and
  • licensing requirements for architects, engineers, or contractors.

Most of the buildings in Haiti are reinforced concrete frames with unreinforced concrete masonry unit infill, the report explains. Rebar is used in small amounts and is smooth, rather than textured.

Haitians told Fierro that ethics have also been an issue with buildings. For example, some engineers and architects sold drawings without inspecting the construction, taking a bribe to say that they had.

Fierro returned for another trip on February 16?22. He observed people taking rebar out of the collapsed buildings to sell, patching cracks in a hospital's walls and returning patients to the building, and rebuilding in exactly the same way. That's because Haitians don't have earthquake engineering knowledge, he explains.

On his second trip, Fierro spoke with a group of approximately 50 Haitian engineers about the ways the construction contributed to the devastation. The PE is trying to get funding to teach earthquake engineering principles there. He's also working on translating and compiling an illustrated booklet used in Peru that shows step-by-step how to safely build a confined masonry home.

He believes there are lessons for the U.S. in Haiti's tragedy. For example, St. Louis is a city built on a major fault but many buildings there aren't designed for earthquakes. "We have the money," Fierro says. "Let's do it before the earthquake comes."


Dean Tills, P.E. Dean Tills, P.E.
Senior Associate-Technical Director
Robert Silman Associates
Structural Engineers
Lead Structures Specialist
Virginia Task Force 1
Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue
Sean Kennedy, P.E. Sean Kennedy, P.E.
Regional Director
O'Donnell & Naccarato
Assistant Lead Structures Specialist
Virginia Task Force 1
Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue

The Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team in Virginia includes seven engineers, and partners with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for domestic response and the U.S. Agency for International Development for international rescues. Four engineers deployed to Haiti from January 13?28. Their role was to perform reconnaissance on buildings, assess the potential for trapped victims, and assist rescue crews in getting into buildings safely.

Dean Tills has been on the team for 17 years and has deployed with them to such disasters as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Pentagon after 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. He explains that the PEs on the team determine the danger areas in the building, what portions might need shoring, what hazards need to be removed, and what can be safely cut through. "We talk back and forth about the options to get at the victim," he says.

In Haiti, the team experienced its two longest rescues ever—one 17-hour rescue at the Hotel Montana, "under pancake collapse," in which Tills advised the rescue workers to tunnel through the dirt into the building, and a 30-hour rescue that Sean Kennedy assisted on at Port-au-Prince University, in which a woman was encased in a collapsed stairwell along with about 30 bodies. In both cases, the victims came out alive.

Kennedy says of the 30-hour rescue, "we joked later we were on plan Z by the time we got done." But with a live rescue, "it's never, 'you can't go in there.'" There's always a way to get in, he says, no matter what the stability of the building.

The Fairfax County team also assisted other international rescue teams without engineers. "We were asked to help out on occasions because the structure had moved, and it made them quite nervous," says Tills. The U.S. is the first country to include engineers on their teams. All 28 U.S. urban rescue teams that partner with FEMA are required to use PEs.

As hard as they work, the teams cannot always get disaster victims out alive. Sometimes, as they are working, they will lose voice contact with the person and they know he or she has passed away. But Tills puts it this way: "Their fate is already kind of written. We go there to try to change that fate?. But I just have to tell myself, if it doesn't work out and the person doesn't make it, it wasn't anything I did."

The team's efforts, however, helped save the lives of 16 people in Haiti. Altogether, U.S. search and rescue teams rescued around 40 people, and the international community of search and rescue teams saved a total of 137 people.


Andre Filiatrault, P.E.Andre Filiatrault, P.E.
Professor of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering and Director, Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research University at Buffalo

About a week after the Haiti quake, Andre Filiatrault received a request from the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a U.S. nongovernmental organization working with the United Nations, for French-speaking structural engineers to conduct building assessment in Port-au-Prince. The PE, who grew up in Quebec speaking French, volunteered his services and also offered the resources of the university's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER).

After putting out a call for help, the center received 100 CVs from its associates and contacts. They selected an initial team of 10 engineers to go to Haiti from January 21?28: three were earthquake experts and seven either spoke French or Creole or knew the country. Five were Haitian-born engineers.

The team used the U.S. Applied Technology Council methodology for tagging buildings after earthquakes, ATC-20. Out of the three levels of assessment, the team conducted only the rapid level.

Each building was assigned a tag: green if it could be safely occupied, yellow if it could be of limited use (a portion could be occupied, or someone could go inside with an escort to gather possessions), and red if the building should not be reentered or reoccupied.


Smooth rebar was used in buildings
Smooth rebar was used in buildings throughout Haiti prior to 2000.
Andre Filiatrault, P.E. (top right) visits with children at a Haitian orphanage.
Photo Credit: Andre Filiatrault

The team was the first group of engineers in Port-au-Prince to arrive with a methodology, so the UN made them responsible for helping to develop procedures for future teams to follow. In all, two MCEER teams assessed about 250 buildings.

The ACT-20 methodology has been approved by Haiti's Ministry of Public Works, and the UN continues to use it to assess buildings. "The task at hand is monumental," says Filiatrault. He's been to five earthquake sites, but "nothing comes close to what we observed in Haiti." He calls the devastation "unbelievable."

For the engineers at MCEER, who usually study infrastructure after the emergency response has occurred, this was their first direct relief effort. However, over the course of their work, they were still able to make some observations: buildings were constructed with smooth rebar that didn't adhere well to concrete, building materials were very sandy and had low cement content, and Haitians continued to salvage rebar for reconstruction.

These aren't acceptable practices, says Filiatrault. "The challenge the government of Haiti is going to be faced with [is] the reconstruction cannot happen the same way as before."

There is some discussion of moving the entire city of Port-au-Prince north, he says, because it's likely another earthquake will happen along the same fault line. But rebuilding the capital somewhere else would "demand tremendous leadership."

The government has established a four-month window to assess buildings. But even when buildings are approved for reoccupation, many Haitian people are fearful to move indoors. Some, Filiatrault says, prefer camping outside, sometimes under the unstable remains of buildings.

"There's a tremendous need for education," he notes. MCEER is working to establish an international collaboration with universities in Haiti to bring earthquake engineering and building assessment knowledge to the country.

While the U.S. government is developing plans for the engineering and scientific community to help rebuild Haiti, the international community can't impose its will on the Haitian people, Filiatrault adds. Other countries have "to be respectful of [Haitian] culture, people, and ways. It would be detrimental to impose any kind of solution the government and the people don't buy into."

In the meantime, the Haitian people are patiently going about their lives: washing clothes, smiling, trying to survive. "It was incredible to me, to watch," he says.

Peter Coats, P.E.Peter Coats, P.E.
Senior engineer
Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger

In 2005, as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders, Peter Coats completed structural engineering design and construction on a school solar electrification project in Haiti. When the earthquake struck on January 12, he had just completed ATC-20 training. He volunteered to help through the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), and was invited to join the organization's reconnaissance trip to Port-au-Prince.

Coats' role on the February 28?March 6 visit was, along with the rest of the multidisciplinary team from various universities, to collect structural engineering information that would be useful in the future. One of his biggest surprises was how dramatically Haiti's strong but brittle buildings failed. "It was pretty insane," he says, adding, "once they fail, they fail in a big way."

By interviewing Haitians, Coats learned that the smooth rebar used in construction was the standard in Europe up to the 1950s and '60s. "The Haitians were just using the type of construction brought to them by the French during the occupation," he says. It was phased out in 2000, but all the buildings built up until then used smooth bars.

But smooth rebar was just part of the problem. The state-run engineering school, the country's most technically advanced institution, graduates only about 50 people a year for a country of nine million people. Plus, building codes and standards are nonexistent, so everything from homes to schools and hospitals are built with little or no oversight. In contrast, the U.S. embassy, which was built to zone 4 seismic requirements, "performed flawlessly," Coats says.

The EERI group is compiling their observations to make preliminary recommendations on retrofitting existing buildings and constructing new ones.

Coats says his biggest surprise was how secure he felt and how friendly the Haitians were. They were very open to talking and answering questions, and they thanked him for being there. "They are really appreciative for all the help the international community is giving them," he says.

People want their buildings to be safe, he says. "They're scared to death of anything like this happening again. If there's any time they'd be willing to listen to advice from the international community, it would be now."

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NSPE reminds PEs not to self-deploy to Haiti or Chile. To help, register with the Center for International Disaster Information at http://dex.cidi.org/.