This visit to Haiti has taught us that some key elements of the Port-au-Prince infrastructure came through Jan. 12’s 7.0 earthquake unscathed, but that’s because there wasn’t much of anything there to scathe.

And that, in itself, represents a form of resiliency not to be discounted. 

The chief distribution system for water is rain, collected residence-by-residence with rooftop systems, storage cisterns, and backed up by trucked deliveries from water purification plants. After the quake, the rain still falls, the purification plants survived and the trucks still roll, where the roads are clear.

The sewerage system consists of drain fields and septic tanks. It’s not much the worse for the quake, either.

The power grid still limps along, with nighttime hours of residential service in Delmas, the part of town where we are staying. 

The grid delivers clean, steady service, except during the frequent brownouts and blackouts that seem to happen two or three times each evening.  

If a blackout lasts long enough, customers take independent action. In our house, and all the others around us, the backup system kicks in when you hear people heading out their doors, followed by the snorts of diesel generators cranking up. Upscale versions of this system automatically start after 30 seconds of power loss.

I ran into Robert A. Busser, a retired architect from Philadelphia, at the offices of Habitat for Humanity, in Petionville. He has been doing volunteer work with the group here for about a month, trying to develop a design for scalable mid-term and long-term replacement housing.

Busser’s professional career spanned many years of working through various incarnations and corporate mutations of companies now embodied in URS, where he was engaged in development of power and transmission systems all over the world.  He says Port-au-Prince’s power system just shrugged off the quake and sputters along pretty much as it always has.

“Transmission towers are light. Not much mass, and they survive earthquakes pretty well,” he said. The towers came through. Also, he says, “they very seldom mount transformers on poles here, which worked to their advantage.” Again, without a big chunk of mass up in the air, the distribution system just waggled its poles and lines a bit, and stayed intact, he said.

At least four diesel generation plants feed the system, Busser says. Without getting into them it is hard to say how they survived; but clearly they did.