Haiti's Buildings Weren't Fit To Withstand Quakes

The National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before  and after Tuesday's earthquake.

The National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's presidential residence, before and after Tuesday's earthquake. (Top) M_Eriksson via flickr; (bottom) Jorge Cruz/AP hide caption

itoggle caption (Top) M_Eriksson via flickr; (bottom) Jorge Cruz/AP

Haiti's magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck a country whose buildings were barely built to engineering standards and were hopelessly fragile in the grip of such a strong quake.

That's the assessment of Pierre Fouche, an earthquake engineer from Haiti — in fact, the country's only earthquake engineer, to his knowledge.

Fouche says when he was studying engineering in Haiti his professors told him that at least one building there would survive an earthquake — the presidential residence known as the National Palace.

The palace now lies in ruins.

Constructing Disaster

Fouche is now getting his doctorate in earthquake engineering at the University of Buffalo. He says his family has survived Tuesday's quake, but he's saddened by the fact that so many who didn't were killed because buildings in Haiti are so poorly constructed.

"Many people are doing whatever they want; they can build whatever they want," Fouche says. "One of the biggest problems too is that in the country we do not even have a national building code, which is very sad."

Fouche says people with money can build reinforced concrete buildings with steel rods to strengthen walls and floors. But he says even these may not meet engineering standards to support a load vertically, and they definitely cannot handle the side-to-side forces of an earthquake.

  • Injured people rest in the streets of Port-au-Prince Thursday, two days after the devastating 7.0 quake.
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    Injured people rest in the streets of Port-au-Prince Thursday, two days after the devastating 7.0 quake.
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  • Rescuers carry an injured girl down the street after digging her out of the rubble Thursday.
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    Rescuers carry an injured girl down the street after digging her out of the rubble Thursday.
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  • Virginia Cary, of Cleveland, Tenn. waits at the Port-au-Prince airport in hopes of a return flight to the U.S.
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    Virginia Cary, of Cleveland, Tenn. waits at the Port-au-Prince airport in hopes of a return flight to the U.S.
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  • Fireman attempt to put out a blaze in Port-au-Prince Thursday.
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    Fireman attempt to put out a blaze in Port-au-Prince Thursday.
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  • After 50 hours trapped, James Girly, 64, is rescued from the remains of the Montana Hotel by the French military.  (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
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    After 50 hours trapped, James Girly, 64, is rescued from the remains of the Montana Hotel by the French military. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
  • Workers dig for bodies in a fight against time.
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    Workers dig for bodies in a fight against time.
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  • A woman who lost a hand lies on the ground outside a makeshift recovery ward in Port-au-Prince Friday.
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    A woman who lost a hand lies on the ground outside a makeshift recovery ward in Port-au-Prince Friday.
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  • An injured child waits for medical attention near a damaged hospital in Carrefour, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Friday.
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    An injured child waits for medical attention near a damaged hospital in Carrefour, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Friday.
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  • People line up to for gasoline. Aid organizations are struggling  to get needed resources to survivors.
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    People line up to for gasoline. Aid organizations are struggling to get needed resources to survivors.
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  • People line up to receive water, an in-demand commodity, from a firetruck in Port-au-Prince.
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    People line up to receive water, an in-demand commodity, from a firetruck in Port-au-Prince.
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  • Earthquake survivors use water from a fountain to bathe in the central public garden of Port-au-Prince.
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    Earthquake survivors use water from a fountain to bathe in the central public garden of Port-au-Prince.
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  • People wave at a helicopter in the center of Port-au-Prince. Aid efforts are slow to reach the Haitian capital.
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    People wave at a helicopter in the center of Port-au-Prince. Aid efforts are slow to reach the Haitian capital.
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  • The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming relief efforts.
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    The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming relief efforts.
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  • Bolivian U.N. Blue Helmet soldiers stand guard at an aid center in Port-au-Prince as a group of Haitians carries a victim.
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    Bolivian U.N. Blue Helmet soldiers stand guard at an aid center in Port-au-Prince as a group of Haitians carries a victim.
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  • A staff member from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, treats an injured man.
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    A staff member from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, treats an injured man.
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  • Men carry an injured relative in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian Red Cross estimates that more than 50,000 people may have been killed in the earthquake.
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    Men carry an injured relative in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian Red Cross estimates that more than 50,000 people may have been killed in the earthquake.
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  • A member of the Fairfax Country Urban Search & Rescue Team and her K-9 partner search the U.N. Headquarters for more survivors after freeing a man who was trapped for 40 hours in the rubble.
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    A member of the Fairfax Country Urban Search & Rescue Team and her K-9 partner search the U.N. Headquarters for more survivors after freeing a man who was trapped for 40 hours in the rubble.
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  • Aid trickled in Thursday morning. Here, Maurice Cain, senior airman with the U.S. Air Force, unloads humanitarian supplies from Panama at the Port-au-Prince airport.
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    Aid trickled in Thursday morning. Here, Maurice Cain, senior airman with the U.S. Air Force, unloads humanitarian supplies from Panama at the Port-au-Prince airport.
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  • A U.N. peacekeeper from Chile works in the rubble of the Montana Hotel.
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    A U.N. peacekeeper from Chile works in the rubble of the Montana Hotel.
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  • With thousands missing and the death toll climbing, dazed survivors wander amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince two days after the devastating earthquake.
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    With thousands missing and the death toll climbing, dazed survivors wander amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince two days after the devastating earthquake.
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  • Haitians walk though streets filled with rubble and bodies.
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    Haitians walk though streets filled with rubble and bodies.
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  • Displaced people create makeshift shelters out of tarps and sheets.
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    Displaced people create makeshift shelters out of tarps and sheets.
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  • A woman prepares a bed in the street Tuesday night after the quake.
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    A woman prepares a bed in the street Tuesday night after the quake.
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  • Many Haitians spent a second night on the streets. Here, people gather on a square in Port-au-Prince's Petionville district.
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    Many Haitians spent a second night on the streets. Here, people gather on a square in Port-au-Prince's Petionville district.
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  • Members of the congregation of First Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn. pray for the earthquake victims Thursday. The pastor's son is believed to have been killed in the quake.
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    Members of the congregation of First Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn. pray for the earthquake victims Thursday. The pastor's son is believed to have been killed in the quake.
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  • Members of Canada's Haitian community comfort each other at the Haitian-Canadian Community Center in Montreal.
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    Members of Canada's Haitian community comfort each other at the Haitian-Canadian Community Center in Montreal.
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"The earthquake, it's much more of a type of lateral loading, [and] for lateral loading you need special construction, but in many cases they are not designed, not even for current daily loading."

But many people in Haiti live and work in unreinforced buildings — brick, block or concrete. He says some of these buildings use stacked bricks instead of solid vertical columns to support ceilings.

Widespread Collapse

Earthquakes put enormous stress on rigid buildings. Andre Filiatrault, who directs the earthquake engineering center at the University of Buffalo, explains what happens to a masonry or concrete wall that's perpendicular to the motion of the quake: "The wall just kind of explodes. Imagine that I hit a wall with my fist; I'm going to create a hole there, and imagine [that] the shaking in that direction will create even a bigger hole and the wall collapses and the slab falls down." The slab being the wall or ceiling.

Filiatraut says televised images of Port-au-Prince suggest this kind of collapse was widespread. "The video showed complete dust over the entire city. Apparently that dust lasted quite a long time, 10, 15 minutes or so, and that seems to indicate these types of buildings, concrete buildings, pancaking, creating a lot of dust."

Several big aftershocks followed the earthquake. Fouche says that makes the surviving buildings very dangerous. "Once you have the aftershock," he says, "it's like you are shaking a building that is already damaged, so this is quite likely to bring those buildings down."

After The Quake, Threat Of Landslides Looms

There's another threat to buildings and people in Haiti as well — quake-induced landslides. Haiti has very few trees left; it's one of the most deforested nations in the hemisphere.

Mark Ashton, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry who has studied the Caribbean, says that without woody plants, water doesn't soak deeply into the soil. That causes erosion and unstable slopes. "You can get rain-soaked soil, very fragile, without any rooting system, and you get very sudden movements — landslides."

Ashton says Haiti is a country with lots of steep slopes that are vulnerable to landslides. Besides the threat to people below, they could cover roads and slow down rescue and relief efforts.

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