Two years ago, Haiti hosted the first-ever disaster-reduction meeting, which was attended by more than 120 representatives of 21 nations of the greater Caribbean and 18 regional and international organizations. The November 2007 conference in Saint-Marc, called the “High-Level Conference on Disaster Reduction of the Association of Caribbean States,” produced a 27-point action plan for disaster reduction, which included a plea to make disaster-risk reduction a national priority.
“Costly investments in infrastructure built in hazardous areas need to be protected, while the time needed for disaster recovery needs to be reduced,” said one speaker at the conference, which was sponsored in part by the Republic of Haiti.
The impetus for action was in large part economic. The ACS members rely on tourism, which contributes from 20% to 70% of the gross domestic product of the nations.
The goal was for the ministerial council of ACS to adopt the recommendations in the action plan. After that, the ACS special committee on natural disasters was supposed to have begun work. The status of the effort is unclear: ENR’s attempts to contact ACS failed.
But the devastation in Haiti demonstrates the disaster-reduction effort had little, if any, impact. The undertaking was too ambitious, especially concerning regional earthquake hazards. Unlike 13 other Caribbean states, Haiti does not have a building code, let alone a code for seismic design of structures.
This also comes despite an older ACS project that updated building codes of the greater Caribbean for winds and earthquakes. They are available from ACS at www.acs-aec.org/Disasters/Projects/ACS_ND_001/building_codes_eng.htm.
Though model codes are available, they are not used much in Haiti, except possibly by international companies building there. French codes for reinforced-concrete frames are taught in the schools, say sources.
There is also no oversight of construction of any kind, add experts. “There are five- or six-story apartment buildings built without any authority supervising,” says Pierre Fouche, a Ph.D. candidate in the dept. of civil engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Fouche is a Haitian who was last there in 2007.
Mostly only gravity frames with no bracing or shear resistance exist in the country, he adds. “Many of the buildings were cracked before the quake,” Fouche says, because they were not designed for the appropriate stress level even for gravity loads. “The buildings are not designed for lateral loading and are poorly designed for earthquake loading. This was a disaster in the waiting.”
Even newer, reinforced-concrete construction, with some exceptions for companies, quite likely was not designed to resist earthquake loads, says Fouche. He observed unreinforced masonry buildings that consist of stacked bricks and a galvanized metal roof. In the corners, the bricks cross for reinforcement, he says. Sometimes, a few bars of reinforcing steel were thrown in.
Eduardo Miranda, an associate professor in the dept. of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., who has participated in several ACS engineering conferences in the Dominican Republic, says earthquake awareness among the general population or professional engineers has lacked. “Among other things, we were trying to bring earthquakes to the attention of structural engineers there,” he says.
The objective of the first phase of the ACS model code project was to “produce and disseminate state-of-the-art model codes for wind loads and earthquakes, as well as recommendations for the updating of existing codes, so that ACS member countries are able to endow themselves with new, appropriate codes or improve existing ones and to develop better construction practices and techniques for the building of safe and reliable buildings.” The project’s second phase aims at promoting the development, maintenance and application of appropriate construction standards and codes to enhance significantly the resilience of buildings to the effects of natural hazards. This has to do with enforcement and inspection mechanisms as well as incentives and training.
ACS notes that enforcement comes from the political will to fully implement adequate building codes and standards. It is unclear whether the goals of the project were reached elsewhere in the Caribbean. In Haiti, they were not.