Toronto Star – March 21, 2010
It’s often said earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. A tragic example of this took place earlier this year. On Jan. 12, Haiti was rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. More than 200,000 Haitians perished and a great deal of the country’s homes, buildings and other infrastructure was demolished.
Just over a month later, on Feb. 27, another earthquake struck the southern hemisphere, this time off Chile’s coast. Registering 8.8 on the Richter scale (500 times more powerful than Haiti’s disaster), Chile’s quake killed 800 people and left most of the country’s buildings standing.
There are plenty of reasons the damage inflicted by the quakes was so much worse in Haiti. The proximity of each country’s capitals to the epicentres as well as the general earthquake preparedness drilled into the Chilean population played a part in mitigating the damage. But more than anything, it was the strict building codes and strong building materials that saved thousands of lives in Chile, and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Haiti.
Since experiencing an even stronger earthquake in the 1960s, Chileans took proper seismic building to heart. One construction method implemented across the country was a “strong columns/weak beams” design. Buildings designed in this way have columns that are much stronger than the beams that make up the floors. The beams are more ductile and are often connected to the rigid columns with a flexible joint. The design dissipates the energy exerted on the structure by an earthquake and keeps the building standing upright. It’s not a particularly unique concept, but it is a more expensive one.
And for Haiti, as it is for many developing countries, cost is the crucial issue. Mired in a deadly combination of corruption and poverty (the average Haitian salary is $70 per month and the country’s GDP is less than $8 billion), Haiti has some of the loosest building codes in the world. Many of the homes in the centre of the country’s capital are constructed from adobe, a mixture of mud and straw, which crumbles under the violent stresses of seismic activity.
Adobe is much cheaper than steel-reinforced concrete and has been the material of choice for many Haitian builders out of sheer financial necessity. But with this tragic earthquake and its devastating impact, there’s an opportunity to transform Haiti’s archaic building codes and techniques and move them toward Chile’s.
It will start with the millions of dollars in aid being poured into the country. On March 31, a donors’ conference will take place in New York as international governments plan a long-term recovery for Haiti. It’s critical that the reconstruction across Haiti upgrade and not simply replace the shattered structures of the country. There are a variety of ways to do this.
The first is education. Some of the money aimed at material reconstruction needs to be allocated to local architects, developers and builders for an education initiative on building earthquake-safe structures. Domestic organizations and the North American construction and concrete industries need to play a part in this. Organizations like the American Concrete Institute (ACI) and the International Association for Earthquake Engineers (IAEE) have already taken the initiative, connecting with locals about how to build in earthquake zones. IAEE in particular has recommended the architectural and international building community’s library be expanded and opened to developing nations eager to build to code but unsure of how to do it. Despite this work, both organizations have been hampered by small budgets. Aid money could change this.
Internationally, pressure from government stakeholders needs to be put on large development agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to monitor the projects they are funding to ensure aid dollars are going toward projects utilizing proper and safe construction practices.
In the midst of this terrible tragedy, there’s an opportunity to rebuild Haiti in a safer way that could save hundreds of thousands of lives in the future. It’s up to the public, private industry and governments around the world to ensure that next time an earthquake strikes, Haiti is better prepared and better built.
Kevin Yuers is vice-president of Vancouver-based Kryton International Inc., which manufactures concrete waterproofing products and distributes them to the construction industry worldwide.