Illinois Engineers Discuss Damage in Haiti

The earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital and largest city, Port au Prince, on Tuesday revealed a not altogether surprising fact: buildings weren’t designed to any code, electrical infrastructure was mostly nonexistent, and the challenge now—after the aftermath—will be to rebuild the right way.

“These are just ‘a roof over your head’ kind of houses,” says Krishna Pagilla, associate professor in the Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering department at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). “They would never pass any kind of code.”

Krishna has traveled to Haiti with students through IIT’s Haiti Outreach and Engineers without Borders chapters, which are working on sustainable water and electricity engineering projects in and around the central plateau town of Pignon, about 95 km (60 miles) from Port au Prince.

According to Krishna, the country doesn’t have the materials, building codes, or workmanship necessary to have protected its infrastructure from earthquake damage. Even electrical wiring, where it exists, wouldn’t have been done to any standard, he says.

The major problem with Port au Prince’s concrete buildings was the lack of steel reinforcement, or rebar. A block of concrete is strong, says Krishna, but not flexible. Once the earthquake’s strength—particularly its horizontal forces, like waves on water—overcomes the concrete’s strength, the building crumbles.

Rebar, on the other hand, allows a structure to bend or sway, giving it flexibility in addition to strength, and the ability to withstand those horizontal forces—at least for a little while. When the building does finally start to crack, the rebar holds it together long enough to slow the process, giving people inside a chance to get out.

The school Pagilla’s students designed and built in Pignon in 2007 and 2008, using reinforced concrete, is still standing, though the group hasn't been able to confirm for comparison whether other buildings in the town were damaged.

But from photos of the devastation in Port au Prince, Pagilla can tell that no such reinforcement was built into its structures.

Pagilla adds that many parts of Port au Prince didn’t have electricity even before the earthquake. Afterwards, well, with damage of this magnitude, “nothing flows through wires, pipes, or roads.”

Could it have been avoided? Only with proper building codes and enforcement. But “there is so much to do in Haiti, they have so little,” Pagilla told CBS in a TV interview. It’s clear that infrastructure just wasn’t the priority. “I think it’s like a bad break to the people who have the least,” he said in the interview. “They will probably have to rebuild the city from scratch,” he told IEEE Spectrum.

Adam Nizich, a recent IIT graduate who traveled to Haiti last summer to help install solar panels at the Pignon school, hopes that they’ll rebuild the capital correctly. “It would be a big step just to get building codes, and enforce them,” he says.

Pagilla says that IIT will be more engaged than ever in Haiti now. His group believes in a model of aid where the community has a vested interest in the project, versus just getting a handout. So while the students are currently focusing on raising money for relief, they know the longer-term challenge will be continued engineering development.

Three IEEE members are currently located in Port au Prince. We hope they and their families are safe.

Learn more about IIT projects in Haiti.

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