In Haiti, engineers get crash course on quake damage assessment

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Hector Marie Suze and her family have bunked on a bare lot with 22 other families since the Jan. 12 earthquake here toppled two interior walls and big patches of ceiling plaster in her home.

The building appears inhabitable, but Suze still refuses to sleep indoors because she is afraid the continuing aftershocks will finish the job.

“I want a specialist to come and say, officially, that I can come in,” said Suze, 47.

Help is on the way. U.S. structural engineers, including earthquake specialists from California, are putting their Haitian counterparts through a crash course on how to assess earthquake damage and determine whether a property is safe to live in.

The immediate goal is to get thousands of displaced residents to move back into houses that are livable, relieving pressure on the 300-plus impromptu encampments before the impending spring rains. An untold number of people are living in tents or under tarps even though their homes suffered relatively light damage.

“Many people are not going inside because no one has done damage assessment,” said H. Kit Miyamoto, a private Los Angeles-based earthquake engineer who was recruited to train Haitian officials by the Pan American Development Foundation in Washington.

Miyamoto, who uses photographs of damage from the 1994 Northridge quake in his class, said half the remaining houses in the Port-au-Prince quake zone are probably livable. An additional 30% can be repaired, while the rest are probably lost causes, he said.

The process for designating Haitian buildings will be familiar to Angelenos who lived through the magnitude 6.7 Northridge quake. Buildings are to be classified by level of damage, with sound structures tagged green, those that require work tagged yellow and unsafe ones tagged red.

About 1,000 buildings in one area of Port-au-Prince have been graded, but authorities won’t be able to conduct inspections on a wide scale until hundreds of Haitian engineers and architects are ready to help.

That means hurried, hands-on training for engineers here with little, if any, know-how in seismic engineering.

Miyamoto and several of his engineers spent three days in late February training 10 top engineers from Haiti’s Public Works Ministry on how to apply the U.S. assessment standards. Those officials are to teach Haitian inspectors what they learned.

Planners hoped to have 200 engineers out on the streets by the end of last week, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Blackwell of the military-civilian Joint Task Force in Haiti, which is also inspecting properties and conducting damage assessment training.

For Haitian structural engineers, the quake delivered a harsh lesson on what can happen when construction is shoddy and a building code apparently nonexistent. “We haven’t found [a code] yet,” said Dennis Smith, a civil engineer with the task force.

Most structures were made of concrete blocks to withstand hurricanes, but builders often used poor-quality concrete and did not reinforce the structures to withstand a powerful earthquake.

The damage assessment training could lead to new construction standards in Haiti that take quakes into consideration. Before the Jan. 12 temblor, the last devastating earthquake to hit Port-au-Prince was in 1770.

“We are taking part in this to bring corrections, to bring new laws, to do better in the future,” said Carlo Lafond, who has been a public works engineer for 24 years.

Led by members of Miyamoto’s company, Lafond and nine colleagues recently donned yellow hard hats and split into teams in a neighborhood called Turgeau for some hands-on training.

One team stood before the shattered shell of what a century ago was a majestic hotel and more recently housed a private university. Although much of the exterior was intact, entire floors had plunged into the center of the building. One end was sheared as if by a giant saw, a wall clock left incongruously in place.

One of Miyamoto’s engineers, Ken Wong, took the building’s GPS coordinates and led the students through a checklist: construction materials, size of building, extent of damage.

Some of the Haitian engineers said that parts of the grand structure could be rescued. But Miyamoto shook his head.

“This is a 100% loss,” he said crisply. “This is like a collapsed building.”

After more back and forth, all agreed the structure should be red-tagged.

A neighboring site on the same campus offered what Miyamoto called a “classic case” of building failure: The columns were left weakened when flimsy walls buckled.

It’s slow work. An engineer might be able to inspect 10 to 15 structures a day, and there are many to check. Haitian authorities hope to inspect 100,000 buildings in the next three months.

Meantime, in another part of town, Suze regards her six-room house much as one might a coiled snake. She passes through it several times a day to reach her outdoor cooking pit in the back but is adamant about sleeping outside.

Suze said she was prepared to stay in the crowded makeshift camp for six months if necessary. Then, if an aftershock claimed the rest of the house, she said, her family wouldn’t be there.

“To hell with the house,” she said. “It can go down by itself.”