Haiti faces money, labor problems reconstructing buildings wrecked by earthquake

Esceline Belcombe, 22, sings in a Port-au-Prince, Haiti, tent city. Two years ago, Belcombe was a finalist in "Miss Videomax," a show similar to "American Idol."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The Rev. Celestin Jean Robert tried a brave smile as he went from one room to the next and heard the news about his church and school: The prognosis for Assembly of God was mostly bad.

"No one should go in there," Darlene Clovis, 28, a mechanical engineer from New Jersey, told the pastor, pointing to a stand-alone classroom with crack-filled walls.

"See, these columns need to be replaced," said Craig Totten, 39, a structural engineer from Portland, Ore.

But Robert, a rail-thin pastor who also studies engineering, said, "I have examined them, too. And there is not too much problem."

The good news, the engineers said, was that the church needed only minor repairs. But, they cautioned, there were plenty of serious structural problems with an annex and the school.

Nearly four weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck this island nation, volunteer engineers from several countries are scouring buildings that did not collapse, examining beams and supports and providing the same grim assessment: About 20 percent of the capital city's buildings were destroyed, but an even greater percentage left standing are so unsafe that they will have to be fixed before they can be occupied or will have to be torn down.

The cost of carrying out the prescription could run into the billions -- a tough verdict to take in a country where per-capita income is $1,500 and where many people are just trying to feed themselves.

"The problem is that some of the repairs are beyond the capacity of local industry," said Andrew Morton, a geological engineer with the United Nations. "Is it affordable, is it appropriate, the heavy investment in concrete, when the budget should also be balanced against essential social services, like education and health?"

Many people, such as Alberte Silvera, who directs an orphanage, are heeding the warnings. Her 24 charges sleep outside, even though the orphanage was not badly damaged. "They told us not to be inside," she said. "Me, I sleep inside, because I trust in God."

But some building owners and tenants simply want to get on with their lives, ignoring calls to abandon buildings even though they have heard warnings on the radio from government officials and seismologists about the high probability of another quake.

At his new three-story office building, completed just before the quake, Josias Borgella scoffed when told that Totten, the engineer, had said the structure was in imminent danger of collapse. Cinderblocks had rained down from upper floors in the temblor. Whole sections of wall had been sheared off. Cracks ran from side to side.

Still, Borgella, 49, said he planned to open soon and was hoping for tenants. He even hoped to put in his own restaurant. "I am not an engineer, but I do not think it is in bad shape," he said. "I don't think it's in danger."

In Port-au-Prince, Haitians say, anyone can and does build, stacking cinderblocks on top of one another and holding them together with a grainy mortar that can be scratched off with a fingernail. Columns and reinforcements appear to be an afterthought. And the floors rise, to three, four, five stories.

"And you see the results," Totten said, speaking from a U.N. 4x4 taking him and Clovis through the ruins. "A lot of these materials are not even cinderblocks -- they are rocks. It's rubble walls, and obviously they fared badly."

Totten, a partner in the structural engineering firm KPFF, and Clovis, who works for the Defense Department, said they rushed to Haiti as the call went out seeking engineers. He has years of experience working on State Department projects, and Clovis speaks Creole.

Their work -- and that of engineers from Japan, Spain, Canada, Chile and other countries -- will help Haitian seismologists, engineers and inspectors evaluate repairs and new construction. Dieuseul Anglade, a Haitian official who is assessing the damage, told reporters that Haiti will develop a building code that requires better use of material.

As they went from homes to schools to a church recently, Totten and Clovis said that the most serious cracks they looked for were horizontal ones, a sign that a building probably would not survive a strong aftershock.

"What we don't want is for them to plaster over the cracks," Totten said. "That's not going to do anything."

At the three-story College Les Freres Saint Cyr, a school built on the edge of a gully, Totten and Clovis chipped behind plaster to see what the building's interior looked like. They went into classrooms looking for cracks.

The assessment to the principal, Marc Kenol Sincere, was simple: Don't use the building.

"Do not let people come inside," Clovis told him. "In rain, or an earthquake, the school might collapse."

Sincere looked tired, but he said he was not dejected. He promised to follow the advice.

"The education ministry says they will help," he said, "but we do not know if we will get that help."

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