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In Haiti, Many Buildings Left Standing Shouldn't Be

U.N. officials say perhaps 20 percent of the structures in Port-au-Prince collapsed. And 80 percent of those still standing suffered serious damage.
Chris Hondros
/
Getty Images
U.N. officials say perhaps 20 percent of the structures in Port-au-Prince collapsed. And 80 percent of those still standing suffered serious damage.

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.

It's going to take a decade for this city to recover.

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.

A woman looks at collapsed buildings in a shantytown in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26.
Roberto Schmidt
/
AFP/Getty Images
A woman looks at collapsed buildings in a shantytown in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26.

U.N. 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.

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