Why Haiti Crumbled (and What to Do About It Before the Next Big One Hits)

Rebuilding Haiti after the earthquake. Image by Justin Thomas Ostensen. Haiti, 2010.

They say that an earthquake is an act of God, but the death toll is a man-made disaster. In that regard, Haiti was a disaster waiting to happen.

Last month, I interviewed Peter Haas, who runs Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, an engineer training charity inspecting buildings and teaching masons how to build back better in Haiti. "We saw the same failure points happening again and again and again and again and again," he told me. "I mean, there's no mystery why these buildings came down. Its really construction practice and materials. And if you change the construction practice and you change the materials -- at not a significant increase in cost -- you can have buildings that withstand earthquakes much stronger than the earthquake that hit here."

Most of the construction around Port-au-Prince was done with cement blocks -- blocks that were too thin, used too much sand and not enough cement, or were tied together with smooth (as opposed to ribbed) Rebar. These are small points, says Haas, and easy to fix. "If you want to build a building here, you should get a block, hold it a meter and a half off the ground and drop it. If the block shatters, you don't buy a block from the person. These are simple tests that the masons here didn't know to do." Like building the walls, and then pouring the columns that do support, so that the walls get tied into columns. "That's a really important thing that they didn't do," he said.

AIDG created a curriculum and, with a grant from Architecture for Humanity, has trained some 1200 Haitian masons, according to Haas. They're looking for funding to train 10,000 more over the next 18 months. "Our reasoning is that right now people are rebuilding. They're not waiting for the Haiti Interim [Recovery] Commission to come down from on high and tell them how to rebuild. They're not waiting for the Ministry of Public Works to put out a [building] code. And even if the Ministry of Public Works puts out the code, that would be too late for most of these buildings. By the time people could learn about the code, even if they were willing to follow it, most of these buildings would have gone up already."

A municipal building code is reportedly being developed, but that takes time. And the Haitian government is still reeling from the disaster.

"People really talk about the failures of the Haitian government right after the quake. They didn't fail compared to what they had to work with," Haas said. "Imagine trying to rebuild Washington DC with half the federal buildings collapsed." A government representative later told me that 45 percent of the federal workforce has been killed, fled Haiti, or been hired by NGOs. Haas told me he helped inspect the Ministry of Justice, and found that "all the judicial records for the entire country were on paper... this is a country that had paper infrastructure with filing cabinets that were thrown open, papers thrown around, buildings collapsed, records lost. I mean, the entire government is just trying to get back on its feet, and it's a real battle for them."

Haas said that groups like Build Change, as well as a New York construction firm and an equipment company, are also working on training Haitian builders.

As homes for the next generation of Haitians begin to rise from the rubble, the need to break with the building practices of the past is clear: Eric Calais, a UN geophysicist who predicted in 2008 that a 7.2 magnitude quake was likely to rock Port-au-Prince, has said that the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck in January exposed new fault lines and increased the probability that another, larger earthquake is coming at some point down the road.