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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

In such a poor country, Haiti's buildings were simply not built to withstand a powerful earthquake. NPR's Christopher Joyce talked to Haiti's only earthquake engineer.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: When he was studying engineering in Haiti, Pierre Fouche's professors told him that at least one building there would survive an earthquake: the National Palace. The palace now lies in ruins.

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

Mr. PIERRE FOUCHE (Earthquake Engineer): Many of the people, they are doing whatever that they want. They can build whatever that they want. One of the biggest problems, too, is that in the country, they do not even - we do not even have, like, a national building code, which is very sad.

JOYCE: 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 definitely cannot handle the side-to-side lateral forces of an earthquake.

Mr. FOUCHE: It's like earthquake, which is much more of a type of lateral loading, for lateral loading you need to have, like, special construction, but in many cases they are not designed, not even for, like, current daily loading.

JOYCE: 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.

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.

Professor ANDRE FILIATRAULT (Director, Earthquake Engineering, University of Buffalo): The wall just kind of explodes. Imagine if I'd hit a wall with my fist, I'm going to create a hole there. And imagine, you know, the shaking in that direction causing a bigger hole so the wall collapse, and eventually the slab falls down.

JOYCE: The slab being the wall or ceiling.

Filiatrault says televised images of Port-au-Prince suggested this kind of collapse was widespread.

Prof. FILIATRAULT: The video showed a complete dust over the entire city, and apparently that dust lasted quite a while - 10, 15 minutes or so. And this seems to indicate these types of buildings, concrete buildings, pancaking, creating a lot of dust.

JOYCE: Several big aftershocks followed the earthquake. Pierre Fouche says that makes the surviving buildings very dangerous.

Mr. FOUCHE: Once you have the aftershock, it's like you are shaking a building that is already damaged, so this is quite likely going to bring those buildings down.

JOYCE: 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 is a professor of ecology at the Yale School of Forestry who's studied the Caribbean. He says that without woody plants, water doesn't soak deeply into the soil. That causes erosion and unstable slopes.

Professor MARK ASHTON (Ecology, Yale School of Forestry): You can get rain-soaked soil, very fragile, without any rooting system, and you get very sudden movements - landslides.

JOYCE: 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.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

AMOS: In normal times, people in Haiti keep in close touch with many relatives in the United States.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Tuesday afternoon, Haitian-American Phillip Brutus was in Miami and text messaging with his wife at home.

Mr. PHILLIP BRUTUS: I got a text that she started to send me yesterday about maybe 5:30, but the text stopped in the middle. So, she said, hi, Phil. And then that was it.

INSKEEP: That was the moment the earthquake hit. Yesterday, Mr. Brutus was one of those who gathered and waited at the Notre-Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Miami.

AMOS: More people waited for word outside the Haitian consulate in New York City. Among them, Eve Filius(ph).

Mr. EVE FILIUS: I'm waiting for my uncle, who resides in Port-au-Prince, the capital. He works at the airport. He has eight children that live there. We haven't heard a word from that, and not one soul there.

AMOS: Many of the families have little to go on beyond the news of vast destruction, and the hope that aid will arrive soon for the millions who need it.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: This is NPR News.

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