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Haiti Rebuild Presents A 'Herculean Task'

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Isaac Boyd is an architect and Catholic Relief Services' emergency response team technical advisor for shelter and settlements. He is currently in Haiti working on short- and mid-term shelter solutions for the people of Port-au-Prince. Recently, he spoke with Sara Fajardo, a CRS communications officer covering Latin America and the Caribbean.

Sara Fajardo:
The destruction in Port-au-Prince has been massive. Large swaths of the city have been turned to rubble. Can you explain to us why these buildings fell?
Isaac Boyd

Isaac Boyd, technical advisor for shelter and settlements with CRS' emergency response team, prepares containers of nails for 7,000 shelter kits bound for the makeshift camp at Petionville. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

Isaac Boyd:

In general, it has to do with geology. When you build something in the United States you have to have a sense of the underlying geology of a location and its soil structure. Without a good site-specific analysis of what the soil is, you may not end up with the most appropriate foundation to support the building.

Under normal circumstances this can lead to part of a building settling or shifting at a different rate than another part of a building because some types of soil are much more prone to that. In a severe instance like an earthquake, if part of a building is supported by solid rock, and another part of the surface is supported by some sedimentary soil, the ground will actually shake differently and transfer seismic forces to the foundation differently—one part of the house might shake moderately and the other violently, and this difference will literally crack the building in half.

Construction quality is also a big issue. People build here with concrete masonry units and they don't have a sufficient amount of cement in the mix when the bricks are cast. Typically when you are casting concrete, you have a ratio of 1:2:3, which refers to one part cement, two parts sand and three parts gravel. The ratio should be 1:5, but here it is 1:7 or 1:10, so the blocks hold up to carrying and building, but when exposed to severe loads like earthquakes they'll fall apart.

In the United States, if you take a sledgehammer to a concrete masonry unit you'll have to hit it a couple of times before it will break or disintegrate; here, it takes only one blow. There is also not enough rebar used in building construction and what is used is not engineered for the design of the building.

These are some of the determining reasons why, when we drive around Port-au-Prince, we'll see a pile of rubble next to a perfectly intact building. One building fell because it was poorly constructed. That is not unique at all to Haiti. Wherever you don't have strong building inspection norms and quality assurance, contractors can build as they wish without a whole lot of monitoring that makes them adhere to specific building guidelines.

Example of shelter at Petionville

An estimated 50,000 Haitians have taken refuge at the Petionville Club's nine-hole golf course. Here, a shelter has been cobbled together from cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

What are CRS' immediate plans for shelter in Port-au-Prince?

The first step is basic material to get a roof over people's heads, improve privacy and prepare for the beginning of the rainy season. Soon after I arrived in Port-au-Prince, my colleague Chris and I visited several of the spontaneous settlements and camps to get an idea of how people are living now and to understand what materials people had available for basic, rudimentary shelter.

The majority of people seemed to be able to salvage some type of simple structural material such as tree branches or milled timber from doors and window frames. They've used these to make a simple frame and have used the frames to build rudimentary shelters with flimsy bedsheet walls, with a sheet for a roof and sometimes with no roof at all. Others are using cardboard.

These "homes" don't offer a lot of privacy, don't offer a lot of security and don't offer any protection against the elements. The good thing, however, is that people generally do have some kind of structural material [framing] and we are building on this by providing shelter kits with plastic sheeting, nails, 90 feet of rope and other connection materials such as inner tubes which can be cut up into small squares to nail through so that the nails don't pop through the plastic sheet. We have also ordered wool blankets, bedsheets and mosquito nets. These will provide significantly more protection against the elements and more privacy and dignity.

Our first distribution will take place in the makeshift camp at the Petionville Club where an estimated 50,000 people live. We will also explore cooking spaces and washing facilities.

How do you typically begin rebuilding after an emergency?

The interim solution is usually some type of shelter that is ideally based on local building practices and construction skills. The reason you want to prioritize local knowledge and building practices is so that whatever transitional shelter you implement can be upgraded over time. The goal is to support people to build their shelter in ways that are more disaster resistant.

Shelter kit distribution

Displaced Haitians receive emergency shelter kits from Catholic Relief Services at the Petionville Club in Haiti. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

The point isn't the materials, it's the building techniques that are applicable to any material used. For example, in India and Bangladesh, an area of the world that is cyclone-, flood- and earthquake-prone, there was a problem with insufficient lateral resistance. What this means is that there is nothing to prevent house frames from collapsing from any force that is not the force of gravity, so heavy rains or winds could topple their houses. In West Bengal, we are using bamboo to rebuild, in Orissa we are using palm wood and eucalyptus—the material doesn't matter because we are showing people how to apply cross bracing and demonstrating that it is an efficient way of establishing lateral resistance, which will protect them from the force of the elements. People pick up on these techniques quickly and it self-replicates.

In most places there is something like wood or bamboo that you can use to make a simple structural frame, but Haiti is so deforested, there is no wood to spare for reconstruction. Everything has to be brought in from the outside. It's not a tremendous obstacle for us, but in the long run if we show people how to build with timber, they are not going to be building with timber, they are going to be building with the same materials as they did before the earthquake. We usually build with local materials and knowledge, but here the local material and knowledge is concrete block, which when done properly is out of the price range of the average Haitian.

This earthquake took place in an urban setting. What difficulties does this present for reconstruction?

Seventy percent of the people who have been displaced were either renters or squatters. In order for us to proceed, land rights have to be established and this will require significant government involvement. Before we even begin to rebuild, we have to demolish the broken buildings and clear debris. But before we even do that we have to assess thousands of buildings in consultation with the owners to see which buildings should be demolished, and then get permission to do so. The problem is that a lot of the land- and property-owning Haitians are moderately wealthy, and judging from the long lines at the embassies, many of the landowners may have very well left the country. How do you track them down and sort that out? It's a herculean physical task and a herculean administrative task. It's all within the realm of possibility, but it's going to take a lot of time.

In terms of the two phases of response that CRS typically addresses, emergency and then transitional, we are fine on our emergency response. We can provide emergency materials without asking who owns the land. We can provide an immediate Band-Aid solution that will protect displaced Haitians from the elements, while we work out medium- and long-term housing solutions.

A dog guards a tent at the Petionville camp.

A dog guards a tent at the Petionville camp. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

How do you see the reconstruction process evolving?

There are two different basic strategies we can implement: Either people resettle where they used to live or they end up settling in newly established neighborhoods or satellite towns.

For the first option, there are pros to that: People's social networks remain intact, presumably people lived in certain parts of town because their jobs and families were nearby and they established a pattern where they could earn their livelihoods and had crucial social connections. The cons are that a significant proportion of where people used to live was informal settlements and people didn't own the land. This results in the occupants not investing in proper infrastructure because they can be displaced at any given time.

A further complicating factor is that these settlements are not recognized by the government, and, therefore, don't receive the necessary services or aren't forced to abide by a set of building codes which are in place to protect people's safety. In an impoverished country like Haiti, there are a lot of informal settlements due to insufficient municipal management and landownership patterns that exclude the poor. As a result, most poor people in a context like this settle where they can, and that is usually on land that is not optimal for construction.

In Port-au-Prince, a lot of the informal settlements have been established in gullies where there are flash floods or on slope sides where you can have landslides, and where a good foundation is crucial. Unfortunately, in informal settlements there is no engineering involved and people build really cheap, weak structures over time. They may build the foundation first and over time add a wall, and perhaps a few years later a second story. As people build they use a very minimal, one-size-fits-all approach for their foundations and walls, and don't take into consideration what is underneath their structure. They will build another story without making sure they have the correct structural capacity to hold what is going on top.

In satellite towns, we would build brand-new settlements on the outskirts of the city. Ideally, these types of settlements would include proper planning and infrastructure establishment, and people would actually own the land on which they live.

Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.

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