Haiti Underscores Need for Codes
Members of the MAE Center team pictured in Port-au-Prince, left to right: Jean Robert Michaud; Ayhan Irfanoglu; Amanda Lewis; Pierre, the team's driver; and Amr Elnashai.
Professor and Head Amr S. Elnashai and CEE graduate student Amanda Lewis recently returned from a field reconnaissance mission to Haiti to study structural damage there in the wake of the January earthquake. Assistant Professor Scott Olson also recently returned from a separate field mission to Haiti as part of a Geo-engineering Extreme Events Reconnaissance team.
On her first earthquake engineering field mission, CEE graduate student Amanda Lewis witnessed the worst case scenario. As a participant on a Mid-America Earthquake (MAE) Center field reconnaissance team that visited Haiti earlier this month under the auspices of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), Lewis saw first-hand a level of destruction that affected even earthquake engineering veteran Professor Amr Elnashai, CEE department head, who also made the trip.
“Just seeing the actual effects of an earthquake, not in a classroom setting, made it very real,” Lewis says.
The death and damage in Haiti confirms what engineers already knew: without proper building and seismic codes, earthquakes can be devastating, Elnashai says.
“This is the sum total of all the mistakes of mankind—engineering, construction and supervision,” he says. “It is much worse than what we have seen anywhere. You will always find one or two buildings on a field mission that are atrocious, but to put them all together and make a city out of them is unreal.”
The Ministry of Justice in Port-au-Prince
The group was funded by the Mid-America Earthquake Center and worked under the National Science Foundation program of the EERI called Learning from Earthquakes. Georgia Tech Professor Reginald DesRoches, an earthquake engineer and native of Haiti, led the team of 17 researchers, which included seismologists, structural and geotechnical earthquake engineers, and social scientists. The EERI is a national, nonprofit technical society devoted to reducing earthquake risk through a broad-based approach that examines the impact of earthquakes from many perspectives. For Lewis, seeing the suffering of the Haitian people made the trip difficult.
“The social aspect of it really started to wear on me during the week—the poverty and lack of sanitation,” Lewis says. “There are so many people living in tents now. And there are some people living in tents that actually have homes they could go back to, but they are so scared that there’s going to be another earthquake that they don’t even want to live in their houses.”
Tent city in Port-au-Prince
Elnashai, Lewis and a colleague from Purdue University, Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Ayhan Irfanoglu, focused on surveying government buildings, including 14 ministries, the presidential palace and the house of parliament. Over and over, they saw the same thing—concrete structures so insufficiently reinforced as to be nearly plain concrete, decimated by the earthquake. The government is struggling to cope, and disaster response has been inadequate.
Recovery efforts in Haiti
The team stayed in an apartment building in Port-au-Prince that had running water and intermittent electricity. They were served one meal a day and were on their own for breakfast and lunch. Lewis had brought granola bars but was surprised to find a fully stocked grocery store. In general, she says, the accommodations were better than she expected given the chaos pervading most of the city. Elnashai was impressed with her professionalism, as were team coordinator DesRoches and member Irfanoglu.
“Amanda did a fantastic job for somebody who has never been in the field,” he says. “She’s focused, she’s very low-maintenance, she just works like crazy, and she’s very impressive.”
As for Lewis, she was impressed by the Haitians.
“Everyone is in such horrible conditions, but all the Haitian people seem to be very positive and looking forward,” she says. “Even though they lost family, they lost their homes, they lost everything they had. Still, everyone we talked to was so positive.”
The team will contribute to two reports—a quick-look report that will be issued by the MAE Center within the month and a chapter in the EERI report, available in a few months.