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The Haiti EarthquakeInside HumanitarianismInside the Documentary

Why Was the Destruction So Severe?

Six weeks after the Haiti shock, Chile was struck by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake. It was 500 times more powerful than the Haiti quake, yet killed less than 1% of the Haitian total. In this section, we explore answers to the question: why was the Haiti earthquake so destructive?

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Play videoBuilding Codes

“The poverty in Haiti lends itself to people building where they want, how they can … not everybody’s going to be able to build to the exacting standards that a building code requires.”
–Cletus Springer, director of the Department of Sustainable Development, Organization of American States

Unlike in other countries located on or near fault lines, very few of Haiti’s buildings were constructed for earthquake resistance. An absence of building codes combined with a deficit of licensed contractors, engineers and architects contributed to a structural environment ripe for disaster. From informal housing to multi-storeys in downtown Port-au-Prince, collapsed buildings became death traps for thousands of Haitians. “The buildings were brittle and had no flexibility, breaking catastrophically when the earthquake struck,” said seismologist Ian Main. Along with hundreds of thousands of homes, all but one government building was destroyed by the quake, as well as with 60% of the country’s hospitals, and 80% of its schools.

Play videoConstruction Materials

“Better buildings would have saved lives.”
–Chuck DeMets, U.S. Geologist

An earthquake-resistant building costs 10-20% more to build than an unsound structure. For the millions of Haitians living on less than $2 a day, these added costs made safe construction an unaffordable luxury. The walls of 90% of Haitian buildings are constructed with either cement, earth, clisse (“sticks, twigs and branches”), bricks or stone. Contractors and builders often cut corners in construction, reducing costs by using easily available building materials such as limestone dust and unrefined sand, which produce a cheaper but weaker concrete. The vulnerabilities of these buildings were exacerbated by being constructed along hills and slopes, without proper foundations.

Play videoFault Lines

The Dominican Republic and Haiti (which make up the island of Hispaniola) are located next to a geological fault zone that scientists have long termed “a major seismic hazard” to the population. Michael Blanpied of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Hazards Program describes Hispaniola as “caught between two tectonic plates [which are] shearing the island, crushing it, grinding it. And as that occurs, earthquakes pop off,” including a dozen in the region over the past fifty years. The January 12 2010 earthquake – the region’s most powerful in 200 years – originated only kilometers from Haiti’s densely-populated capital. Because of Haiti’s proximity to the fault zone, the aftershocks (40 so far) that followed the initial quake are likely to continue for months and possibly years, with “high chances” of another 5.0 magnitude quake, or higher.

Play videoPopulation Density & Urbanization

Before the earthquake, half of Haiti’s population of 10 million lived in densely populated urban areas, including one in four Haitians residing in Port-au-Prince. This population density around the earthquake’s epicenter meant that an incredible half of the country’s residents were directly impacted by the quake. Many of those affected lived in the urban slums of Port-au-Prince, which were made more vulnerable by their lack of infrastructure and structurally sound dwellings. Haiti’s poverty and demographic pressures have also exacerbated the country’s environmental deterioration, which in turn has increased the population’s movement from the countryside to urban areas.

Learn More

How did Haiti become so impoverished and vulnerable to natural disasters? You can learn more about the country’s background in this interactive slideshow of Haiti’s history.

Jim Pettijohn
November 21, 2010
3:04 am

Not only are qualified Engineers, Architects and Contractors not readily available to most construction projects, most smaller commercial type construction will have other major construction problems.

While the sand and gravel may not be building grade the water used to mix the concrete on the job site will probably come out of the closest canal or stream available, and will be contaminated. As noted in the article the purity of the sand is questionable and the gravel for aggregate is ungraded and sometimes contains rocks that are too large to be used. There is generally no use of sieves to grade the aggregate. The concrete is usually mixed on the ground and the consistency from one batch to the next is non-existant.

I have seen reinforcement bars used that are not deformed but are smooth which will not allow the concrete to bond with the reinforcement.

The only reinforcement generally in the masonry walls consists of concrete “columns” which are placed within the thickness of the concrete block and are usually 8″ x 8″. The masonry block infill walls also are not tied to the columns which allows the walls to lack integrity to act together. Often the walls at the corners are also not bonded together with either concrete block or reinforcing.

Add to these construction problems the fact that most buildings in Haiti have concrete roofs. This heavier weight works against the walls when the earth moves laterally since the roofs will have the tendency to keep moving while the rest of the building is moving back to its original position. Most of the structures that I saw the columns failed at the top and the bottom and the roof or second floor slabs “pancaked” on the floors below. Most of the structures I observed that had little damage all had light weight roof structures.

    November 22, 2010
    2:47 pm

    Thank you for your comment! It sounds like you have worked in the industry in Haiti — or were you there after the earthquake?

Jim Pettijohn
November 23, 2010
1:26 am

I was in Haiti the first week in Feb. to help evaluate our Church’s various properties that had been damaged to help determine is they were safe or neede minor or major repair or simply needed to be torn down.

I have also led a construction mission team and have observed their building techniques at that time

September 6, 2011
10:58 am

I noticed many houses were resistant to tornado but these very heavy reinforced concrete roofs are one reason of big damage in this country
The poor quality of the reinforced concrete frame without shear wall is another reason of the disaster
Lack of skilled masons and carpenter is the reason of the poor quality of constructions
I observed in many countries the same problem due to poor quality of reinfored concrete.
People think it is the best material instead of wooden frame, but they build the next disaster. The lobby of ciment is the main responsible of disaster all over the world.
Reinforced concrete is a marvellous material for civil work but not for non engineering and self construction.


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