In earthquake, Haiti's concrete buildings proved anything but

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 28, 2010

As Haitians deal with the psychological aftershocks of the devastating earthquake, city dwellers here -- prominent and poor alike -- confess they continue to harbor deep anxieties about entering buildings constructed of concrete.

Their fears, as it turns out, are entirely rational.

International engineers inspecting buildings in the rubble-strewn capital have found that houses and offices in Haiti suffered catastrophic damage mainly because they were poorly constructed -- made with a weak cement and lacking proper steel reinforcements, in a country where the government never enforced building codes.

Haitian President René Préval has said he is scared to sleep inside. The National Palace collapsed in spectacular fashion, and his own private home lies in ruins. Préval is staying with friends until he can move to an earthquake-resistant structure.

"Like you, I am nervous," he told reporters. Later he explained, "Port-au-Prince was not well built."

Many people continue to sleep outdoors, fearful even of homes with only cracked walls. Their anxiety poses a challenge for aid workers and government officials who want Haitians to return to structurally sound, though damaged, homes.

Haitians are especially wary of entering large concrete structures. Since the Jan. 12 quake, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, many parents have balked at sending their children back to schools built of concrete. Some patients ask to see doctors in hospital courtyards because they don't trust the buildings.

Eduardo Marques Almeida, head of the Haitian office of the Inter-American Development Bank, remembers being in the bank's hilltop headquarters when the earthquake struck. The damaged building is now abandoned. He conducts his meetings under a mango tree because many of his staff members refuse to enter the bank's other, still sound offices, for fear they could collapse in an aftershock.

"We're going to tear them all down and rebuild, or else nobody will work inside," Almeida said.

In a confidential memo circulated among its employees in Haiti, the United Nations mission recommended that they stay out of concrete structures and offered suggestions on how to politely decline to attend meetings in buildings they deemed dubious.

For only the second time since the earthquake, Hiclair Siclait, 70, opened the door to his concrete home recently and entered hesitantly. "When the earthquake happened, I saw the roof going up and down." He rocked back and forth to simulate the motion.

Ever since, Siclait has lived in the streets under a tarp with his wife, four sons and two daughters. "I am afraid to sleep inside. If I find a tent, I will sleep on the roof," he said. "I think after a few months I might come back. With time, I might be less afraid. You never know."

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