This past summer, I was asked to join a team of researchers heading to Haiti to do post-earthquake reconnaissance and research. The team consisted of professors and students from Purdue University, the University of Kansas, the State University of Haiti, and the University of Washington. The goal of the project was to perform a statistical survey of buildings that, whether they survived or failed, could aid our understanding of the behavior of structures in areas where building codes are non-existent or not enforced. I’m not going to go into the details of the research, as there are forthcoming publications that explain our methods and findings. What I do want to discuss, seeing as this is a blog about the engineering profession, is what the experience taught me as an erstwhile professional engineer and current graduate student.
As an engineer, one of my first reactions to the destruction was to be reminded of the awesome responsibility that all civil engineers have when it comes to our societies. In no way am I blaming engineers—or anyone else for that matter—for the disaster, but seeing the effects of sub-standard construction really drove home what our profession is entrusted to do. In the midst of the workweek grind, when one is revising a set of dreadfully dry specifications for what seems like the 100th time, it’s easy to lose sight of what all of it all means.
While spending my days assessing buildings and talking to local residents, I began to recall many of the things I’d read in the media in the days after the earthquake. Many people blamed the lack of enforced building codes as the primary reason for the scale of the disaster, and left it at that. This is a specious argument, one that belies the reality of life in Haiti. When life is lived day-to-day, priorities change. If skimping on cement in a concrete mix means even a hint of financial security for your family, it’s easy to see why you take that risk. And to believe that there could be strict, uncorrupt building code enforcement by a government that has been overwhelmed for decades is wishful thinking. The truth of the matter is harder to accept. Proper rebuilding in Haiti is going to take more than dismissive dialogue, and any real improvement must be based on thoughtful consideration of the financial, cultural, and political context. We should not be simply asking “How can we make building codes enforceable?” We, as engineers, should be asking “How can we maximize safety within the limits given to us?” It’s what most of us do every day as part of our job, just within a vastly different context.
Overall, the reconnaissance teams inspected more than 180 buildings over the course of 7 days. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting work and I’m pretty sure I slept for two days straight when I returned home to Seattle. Hopefully, the work we did will help others, both in Haiti and elsewhere. But I am unlikely to ever forget the lessons and images that were imprinted upon me while I was there.