UW Professor writes report to help Haiti rebuild



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Posted on February 23, 2010 at 7:52 PM

SEATTLE - His office on the University of Washington campus seems a million miles from Haiti, but the pictures displayed on his computer speak of the destruction that country still suffers.

Prof. Mark Eberhard is back from Haiti where he led a team of five engineers to study how that country's buildings withstood the 7.0 magnitude quake that hit in January.

The answer? They didn't.

In some of the hardest hit areas, such as the city of Legane, 92 percent of the buildings collapsed or are unsafe to enter.

"I was shocked to hear there was no building code in Haiti," said Eberhard. "I've never been to a place where there's no building codes."

And that's from a man who has been around doing this kind of work before, evaluating earthquake damage for EERI (the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute) and for the U.S. Geological Survey. Knowledge gained on such surveys both overseas and in the U.S. help in new building designs and retrofits to make buildings safer.

Eberhard says Haiti is a largely deforested nation, so there's little domestic wood available to build structures. Wood in that country is more often used for cooking, charcoal and concrete is used for buildings. But without enough reinforcing steel and heavy concrete roofs, many of the structures were doomed to fail.

But, he says, all is not lost for Haiti going forward as the country rebuilds.

He showed me pictures of a church that largely withstood the quake. While the concrete walls were damaged, the roof was made from a much lighter and flexible steel. That building did not crush its occupants like so many others did.

He also showed me before- and after-pictures of a relatively new hospital where the first floor pancaked as most of the exterior wall fell away.

He points to Honduras, Peru and Guatemala - other poor countries vulnerable to earthquakes that have building codes. His group is hoping to have construction manuals from those countries translated into Creole for use by Haitians.

"We have to find ways to develop manuals and things, mainly with pictures which tell people how to build structures. You can do it!" he said.

Eberhard says an earthquake-safe building only costs 10 to 15 percent more than one not so equipped. And he says while that's a huge deal for a poor person, in Haiti even many mansions for the rich and the upscale Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince "were built without any regard to earthquakes."

Eberhard is the lead author of a report that will be shared with U.S. aid agencies and the United Nations.