Thoughtful Article on Haiti Reconstruction

Rebuilding a society:
Enormous challenge faces Haiti — and the world

By Rene Bruemmer, Canwest News Service

Published in Montreal Gazette, April 3, 2010

http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/REBUILDING+HAITI/2760827/story.html

Below is a rare, thoughtful article on the enormity and difficulty of repairing and improving Haiti's physical infrastructure.

How do you rebuild a devastated city? How do you remove the rubble, put in new water pipes, electric lines and sewage drains, build homes, buildings, schools and hospitals and, at the same time, house all the homeless?

Photo: Jonas Ville takes a breather from clearing dust an rubble from the site of a former hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Wednesday, March 10, 2010. It has been almost two months since the earthquake in Haiti.

To put Haiti’s dilemma in perspective, imagine all the homes and buildings in any one of Canada’s most populous neighbourhoods demolished or irreparably damaged. Its residents are living with family and friends or in tents pitched on soccer fields, parking lots and school yards, waiting for the wreckage to be removed and the infrastructure replaced so they can just move home.

Then multiply that image by eight times — because the population of one neighbourhood is only a fraction of those displaced in the still-reeling country.

In Haiti, 1.3 million people have lost their homes and are awaiting new ones after the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck on Jan. 12, killing more than 240,000 people. Some can’t wait any longer and are starting to rebuild in the same slapdash ways poverty has always forced them to, sowing fear this cycle of tragedy will repeat itself, when the next earthquake hits in 10 years. Or 50. Or 300.

At a United Nations international donors’ conference Wednesday, the world was effusive in its outpouring of promised aid, pledging $10 billion for short- and long-term reconstruction, with $400 million coming from Canada.

If the promises are kept, which is often not the case, it will help.

But it still leaves the dilemma of how to proceed.

The natural instinct, former disasters have shown, is to build as quickly as possible — images of wretched homeless squalor prompting the world to erect shanty towns of transitional homes on the outskirts of town in an effort to help. But the efforts, without proper infrastructure, such as water and electricity and roads, end up dooming communities rather than supporting them. Often the shanty towns never disappear.

As it turns out, many of the answers to building a sustainable, healthy and successful community can be found in the slums.

•••

The term natural disaster is something of a misnomer. While the hazards that precipitate them — hurricanes, floods, earthquakes — are of the natural world, the ensuing disasters of mass death and destruction are caused by the inability of habitats created by humankind to withstand them.

The greater the vulnerability of the people living there — generally borne of extreme poverty — the greater the disaster.

Haiti is a nation of poorly built structures sitting on a major fault line. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

“The reason for the disaster was clear in the mangled ruins,” wrote Roger Bilham, of the University of Colorado, in Nature magazine. “The buildings had been doomed in their construction. Every possible mistake was evident: brittle steel, coarse non-angular aggregate, weak cement mixed with dirty or salty sand, and the widespread termination of steel reinforcement rods at the joints between columns and floors of buildings where stresses are highest.”

Instead of mixing proper building sand with cement to make concrete, contractors or people building their own homes often relied on the less expensive natural building materials readily available.

Limestone dust is often used in the place of proper sand, producing a far weaker form of concrete. Concrete foundations lacked stone or other aggregate to give them greater strength.

When aggregate was used, it was often taken from beaches or riverbeds because they’re more easily accessible, but the aggregate was also smoother and rounder than the preferred angular type of stone, so the concrete didn’t hold together under pressure. Sand taken from beaches and riverbeds was often dirty, making it weaker, or worse, salty, which would corrode the steel tie-rods.

Often too much sand was mixed with the cement, making the concrete weaker.

Steel tie-rods reinforcing the cement were brittle and snapped easily. They lacked corrugated edges, so they didn’t adhere as well to the concrete encasing them. Most importantly, the steel tie-rods in columns holding the floors up were not woven into the floors themselves at the joints where they met.

When the buildings started to shake, the supporting columns toppled easily, and the solid concrete floors came straight down, crushing all beneath.

“It only costs 10 to 20 per cent more” to construct a building that is earthquake resistant, said seismologist Bilham.

A report by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that: “Structures designed and constructed with adequate stiffness and reinforcing details would have resisted the earthquake without being damaged severely.”

Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which has been working in the country for about 40 years constructing roads, sewers, water systems and buildings, had been hired by the World Bank before the earthquake to develop a formal building code, a project that was supposed to take eight months.

After the earthquake, SNC-Lavalin was asked to prepare a quick guide to constructing earthquake-resistant buildings using the proper building materials available locally. The guide will be heavily illustrated so even illiterate workers can use it, said Bernard Chancy, director of operations for SNC-Lavalin in Haiti.

“The most important factor will be that the walls, mainly made of concrete cinder blocks, will bear the load of the structure, as opposed to just the columns, as was traditionally done,” Chancy said.

Before Haiti’s infrastructure of sewage pipes, water lines, electricity, houses and buildings can be rebuilt, the detritus must first be removed. Officials estimate there are at least 25 million cubic yards of wreckage, and maybe as much as three times that.

There was one million cubic yards of rubble left behind when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 9, 2001. It took two years to remove it.

Haiti has an estimated 245,000 ruined or irreparably damaged structures awaiting disposal. Many homeowners have started doing it on their own, but there is a limit to what shovels and buckets can do when confronted with slabs of concrete weighing tonnes.

Haiti has only 150 excavators in the whole country, the president of Haiti’s largest tractor equipment company told the Washington Post. His firm controls 90 per cent of the market, he said.

•••

There are many reasons for the initial instinct of building quickly.

Nightmarish images of people living in squalor fill newspapers and television screens. Aid agencies eager to help — especially under pressure from well-intentioned donors who gave money and wonder why nothing seems to be happening.

This instinct is wrong for several reasons, said Universite de Montreal architecture professor Gonzalo Lizarralde, who co-authored the just-released book Rebuilding After Disasters: From Emergency to Sustainability.

First, housing is often not the No. 1 priority in post-disaster situations. Residents create other places to live, or stay with friends or relatives.

What they want is infrastructure like roads, sewage systems and water pipes to be repaired so they can restart their businesses.

In a survey conducted by the Oxfam aid agency in mid-March that asked 1,700 Haitians what they thought the main reconstruction priorities should be, 26 per cent said jobs and 22 per cent said schools.

Homes came in third, with 10 per cent.

“In many cases, affected families preferred to invest the subsidies and loans they were eligible for in building sewage systems, small industries, access roads, production facilities, etc.,” writes Lizarralde.

Much of the delay in rebuilding is linked to land-ownership issues in countries where many people have no official deeds to properties they may have lived on for decades, if not generations.

Figuring out who should get the land and who would benefit from aid took 10 months alone following the double earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, and more than 12 months during post-Hurricane Mitch reconstruction in Honduras.

Moving quickly often results in wrong-headed ideas, evidenced by the Haitian government’s initial plan to place hundreds of thousands of the homeless in tent camps far out of town. Some even floated the idea of moving the entire city of Port-au-Prince and starting from scratch, a “nonsense” idea Lizarralde said was quickly dismissed. (“The people would just move back,” Bilham said in an e-mail.)

Many cities in California, Chile and Japan lie on major fault lines. Their building codes are adjusted for that. There are nearly 20 earthquakes in the magnitude of 7.0 every year — most pass largely unremarked.

Lizarralde’s biggest fear is the government will try to raze existing slums and move people out. What looks like a slum to residents of the developed world is often a well-established neighbourhood built up over decades.

“The slums are there for a reason,” Lizarralde said. “They’re there because people want to be close to each other, to services and infrastructure, and that cannot be neglected.”

Contrary to what media images focusing on destruction conveyed, many areas of Port-au-Prince and other affected regions were largely undamaged, especially low-income neighbourhoods with one-storey homes with roofs made of tin.

“There is an infrastructure there, a capital investment,” Lizarralde said. “Even small amounts of money that have been put into shacks, even if it’s $500, is still quite a bit of money for the people living in them.”

The first reflex is often to relocate residents to cheaper land on the outskirts, an understandable premise for economic reasons, Lizarralde said, but one that generally ends in failure.

“They lose their social networks they have in the urban centres or the current slums, their sophisticated network of social services and co-operation that will break down if families are relocated.”

A single mother with four children who relies on her sister next door to care for the kids while she goes to work will not appreciate a new house on the outskirts of town that prevents her from going to work.

Another reaction, often repeated, is to construct housing before necessary infrastructure, such as sewage or roads, is in place.

In Honduras, officials built a new settlement of large homes in Nueva Choluteca after 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. They neglected to put in roads first, however, which meant residents could not travel to their workplaces. Since nobody came by, there was no point in starting up the usual cottage industries like small corner stores, hairdressers or Internet cafes.

Four years after Mitch, unemployment there was at 45 per cent.

What has worked, Lizarralde said, is a sort of “slum model” of reconstruction. Slum homes start small and weak, and are slowly improved and enlarged as the owners manage to buy or scrounge better building materials like brick and stone. Projects in Columbia that involved giving residents small, 200- to 400-square-foot core homes with room to double the size over five to seven years were successful.

People started developing businesses, using their homes for income-generating activities. Many successful projects involved giving the money directly to families to oversee construction, as they would be far more careful about using it wisely than a contractor would.

They would also hire inexpensive local labour.

Another pattern is to hire well-established firms from the “formal” sector, be they local or international, for the reconstruction work because they’re considered reliable. While understandable, it concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and gives little to the local economy.

“The ideal way is to mix reliable partners with local, informal companies in the construction,” Lizarralde said.

While complex water and sewage infrastructure should be handled by the “formal” sector, aboveground construction of walls, roofs and foundations is not complex work, as long as the proper training is there.

Hire members of the local building force and they will get training in how to build earthquake resistant structures, and be employable long into the future.

Don’t include them, as was done in El Salvador and Honduras and Columbia and South Africa, and “those informal companies will remain ignored and neglected from financial services, education, training and the possibility of slowly climbing up the economic ladder,” Lizarralde said.

Perhaps most importantly, most agree, is that local people need to be involved in the decision-making process. Let them make the decisions and they will live with them.

Inflict the decisions and the projects, expensive and well-intentioned though they may be, and they will often fail.

•••

The problem with rebuilding infrastructure in a disaster zone is that it involves much more than physical structures — all those water pipes and electrical lines and simple houses are the templates for people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Rebuilding properly is frustratingly complex, incorporating the social, economical, physical and psychological needs of a human population.

Working with one contractor is much easier than dealing and inspecting the work of seven different local contractors. The projects must go in phases, slowly, one spot at a time.

It all takes a lot of time.

Aid organizations often don’t want to deal with those complexities, Lizarralde said, and they don’t want to take all that time.

They want to build houses they can show off in pictures, not sewage pipes that no one can see. Haitian President Rene Preval said the country needed $93 million just to fix the country’s sewage drains to avoid flooding.

On the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, reporters will once again swarm Port-au-Prince, and they will report that very little has been done. The media will be outraged, Lizarralde said, and then the donors will be outraged. NGOs and municipalities and the central government will be put under tremendous pressure.

“They will start making mistakes,” Lizarralde said, as people say: ‘We have to act quickly.’

“That’s the way things happen. That’s kind of how the industry works, in a way.”

There are signs of hope, however. The fact the media is still talking about Haiti nearly three months after the quake is both strange and heartening, Lizarralde said.

Unlike in previous disasters, the debate is taking place out in the open, and not just behind closed doors.

Haitians’ long-standing pleas that more resources be transferred outside of Port-au-Prince and to agricultural renewal are finally being heard.

Foreign officials, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton, are going so far as to concede that previous foreign policies are partly to blame for Haiti’s economic wretchedness.

For example, forcing free-trade markets on Haiti led to the influx of subsidized rice exports from countries like the U.S., decimating the agricultural economy during Clinton’s tenure.

“Listening to the radio, inviting experts, talking about what is the right thing to do,” Lizarralde said. “I think it’s an important move toward making things change this time.”

rbruemmer@thegazette.canwest.com

How do you rebuild a devastated city? How do you remove the rubble, put in new water pipes, electric lines and sewage drains, build homes, buildings, schools and hospitals and, at the same time, house all the homeless?

(Photo: Jonas Ville takes a breather from clearing dust an rubble from the site of a former hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Wednesday, March 10, 2010. It has been almost two months since the earthquake in Haiti.)

To put Haiti’s dilemma in perspective, imagine all the homes and buildings in any one of Canada’s most populous neighbourhoods demolished or irreparably damaged. Its residents are living with family and friends or in tents pitched on soccer fields, parking lots and school yards, waiting for the wreckage to be removed and the infrastructure replaced so they can just move home.

Then multiply that image by eight times — because the population of one neighbourhood is only a fraction of those displaced in the still-reeling country.

In Haiti, 1.3 million people have lost their homes and are awaiting new ones after the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck on Jan. 12, killing more than 240,000 people. Some can’t wait any longer and are starting to rebuild in the same slapdash ways poverty has always forced them to, sowing fear this cycle of tragedy will repeat itself, when the next earthquake hits in 10 years. Or 50. Or 300.

At a United Nations international donors’ conference Wednesday, the world was effusive in its outpouring of promised aid, pledging $10 billion for short- and long-term reconstruction, with $400 million coming from Canada.

If the promises are kept, which is often not the case, it will help.

But it still leaves the dilemma of how to proceed.

The natural instinct, former disasters have shown, is to build as quickly as possible — images of wretched homeless squalor prompting the world to erect shanty towns of transitional homes on the outskirts of town in an effort to help. But the efforts, without proper infrastructure, such as water and electricity and roads, end up dooming communities rather than supporting them. Often the shanty towns never disappear.

As it turns out, many of the answers to building a sustainable, healthy and successful community can be found in the slums.

•••

The term natural disaster is something of a misnomer. While the hazards that precipitate them — hurricanes, floods, earthquakes — are of the natural world, the ensuing disasters of mass death and destruction are caused by the inability of habitats created by humankind to withstand them.

The greater the vulnerability of the people living there — generally borne of extreme poverty — the greater the disaster.

Haiti is a nation of poorly built structures sitting on a major fault line. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

“The reason for the disaster was clear in the mangled ruins,” wrote Roger Bilham, of the University of Colorado, in Nature magazine. “The buildings had been doomed in their construction. Every possible mistake was evident: brittle steel, coarse non-angular aggregate, weak cement mixed with dirty or salty sand, and the widespread termination of steel reinforcement rods at the joints between columns and floors of buildings where stresses are highest.”

Instead of mixing proper building sand with cement to make concrete, contractors or people building their own homes often relied on the less expensive natural building materials readily available.

Limestone dust is often used in the place of proper sand, producing a far weaker form of concrete. Concrete foundations lacked stone or other aggregate to give them greater strength.

When aggregate was used, it was often taken from beaches or riverbeds because they’re more easily accessible, but the aggregate was also smoother and rounder than the preferred angular type of stone, so the concrete didn’t hold together under pressure. Sand taken from beaches and riverbeds was often dirty, making it weaker, or worse, salty, which would corrode the steel tie-rods.

Often too much sand was mixed with the cement, making the concrete weaker.

Steel tie-rods reinforcing the cement were brittle and snapped easily. They lacked corrugated edges, so they didn’t adhere as well to the concrete encasing them. Most importantly, the steel tie-rods in columns holding the floors up were not woven into the floors themselves at the joints where they met.

When the buildings started to shake, the supporting columns toppled easily, and the solid concrete floors came straight down, crushing all beneath.

“It only costs 10 to 20 per cent more” to construct a building that is earthquake resistant, said seismologist Bilham.

A report by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that: “Structures designed and constructed with adequate stiffness and reinforcing details would have resisted the earthquake without being damaged severely.”

Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which has been working in the country for about 40 years constructing roads, sewers, water systems and buildings, had been hired by the World Bank before the earthquake to develop a formal building code, a project that was supposed to take eight months.

After the earthquake, SNC-Lavalin was asked to prepare a quick guide to constructing earthquake-resistant buildings using the proper building materials available locally. The guide will be heavily illustrated so even illiterate workers can use it, said Bernard Chancy, director of operations for SNC-Lavalin in Haiti.

“The most important factor will be that the walls, mainly made of concrete cinder blocks, will bear the load of the structure, as opposed to just the columns, as was traditionally done,” Chancy said.

Before Haiti’s infrastructure of sewage pipes, water lines, electricity, houses and buildings can be rebuilt, the detritus must first be removed. Officials estimate there are at least 25 million cubic yards of wreckage, and maybe as much as three times that.

There was one million cubic yards of rubble left behind when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 9, 2001. It took two years to remove it.

Haiti has an estimated 245,000 ruined or irreparably damaged structures awaiting disposal. Many homeowners have started doing it on their own, but there is a limit to what shovels and buckets can do when confronted with slabs of concrete weighing tonnes.

Haiti has only 150 excavators in the whole country, the president of Haiti’s largest tractor equipment company told the Washington Post. His firm controls 90 per cent of the market, he said.

•••

There are many reasons for the initial instinct of building quickly.

Nightmarish images of people living in squalor fill newspapers and television screens. Aid agencies eager to help — especially under pressure from well-intentioned donors who gave money and wonder why nothing seems to be happening.

This instinct is wrong for several reasons, said Universite de Montreal architecture professor Gonzalo Lizarralde, who co-authored the just-released book Rebuilding After Disasters: From Emergency to Sustainability.

First, housing is often not the No. 1 priority in post-disaster situations. Residents create other places to live, or stay with friends or relatives.

What they want is infrastructure like roads, sewage systems and water pipes to be repaired so they can restart their businesses.

In a survey conducted by the Oxfam aid agency in mid-March that asked 1,700 Haitians what they thought the main reconstruction priorities should be, 26 per cent said jobs and 22 per cent said schools.

Homes came in third, with 10 per cent.

“In many cases, affected families preferred to invest the subsidies and loans they were eligible for in building sewage systems, small industries, access roads, production facilities, etc.,” writes Lizarralde.

Much of the delay in rebuilding is linked to land-ownership issues in countries where many people have no official deeds to properties they may have lived on for decades, if not generations.

Figuring out who should get the land and who would benefit from aid took 10 months alone following the double earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, and more than 12 months during post-Hurricane Mitch reconstruction in Honduras.

Moving quickly often results in wrong-headed ideas, evidenced by the Haitian government’s initial plan to place hundreds of thousands of the homeless in tent camps far out of town. Some even floated the idea of moving the entire city of Port-au-Prince and starting from scratch, a “nonsense” idea Lizarralde said was quickly dismissed. (“The people would just move back,” Bilham said in an e-mail.)

Many cities in California, Chile and Japan lie on major fault lines. Their building codes are adjusted for that. There are nearly 20 earthquakes in the magnitude of 7.0 every year — most pass largely unremarked.

Lizarralde’s biggest fear is the government will try to raze existing slums and move people out. What looks like a slum to residents of the developed world is often a well-established neighbourhood built up over decades.

“The slums are there for a reason,” Lizarralde said. “They’re there because people want to be close to each other, to services and infrastructure, and that cannot be neglected.”

Contrary to what media images focusing on destruction conveyed, many areas of Port-au-Prince and other affected regions were largely undamaged, especially low-income neighbourhoods with one-storey homes with roofs made of tin.

“There is an infrastructure there, a capital investment,” Lizarralde said. “Even small amounts of money that have been put into shacks, even if it’s $500, is still quite a bit of money for the people living in them.”

The first reflex is often to relocate residents to cheaper land on the outskirts, an understandable premise for economic reasons, Lizarralde said, but one that generally ends in failure.

“They lose their social networks they have in the urban centres or the current slums, their sophisticated network of social services and co-operation that will break down if families are relocated.”

A single mother with four children who relies on her sister next door to care for the kids while she goes to work will not appreciate a new house on the outskirts of town that prevents her from going to work.

Another reaction, often repeated, is to construct housing before necessary infrastructure, such as sewage or roads, is in place.

In Honduras, officials built a new settlement of large homes in Nueva Choluteca after 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. They neglected to put in roads first, however, which meant residents could not travel to their workplaces. Since nobody came by, there was no point in starting up the usual cottage industries like small corner stores, hairdressers or Internet cafes.

Four years after Mitch, unemployment there was at 45 per cent.

What has worked, Lizarralde said, is a sort of “slum model” of reconstruction. Slum homes start small and weak, and are slowly improved and enlarged as the owners manage to buy or scrounge better building materials like brick and stone. Projects in Columbia that involved giving residents small, 200- to 400-square-foot core homes with room to double the size over five to seven years were successful.

People started developing businesses, using their homes for income-generating activities. Many successful projects involved giving the money directly to families to oversee construction, as they would be far more careful about using it wisely than a contractor would.

They would also hire inexpensive local labour.

Another pattern is to hire well-established firms from the “formal” sector, be they local or international, for the reconstruction work because they’re considered reliable. While understandable, it concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and gives little to the local economy.

“The ideal way is to mix reliable partners with local, informal companies in the construction,” Lizarralde said.

While complex water and sewage infrastructure should be handled by the “formal” sector, aboveground construction of walls, roofs and foundations is not complex work, as long as the proper training is there.

Hire members of the local building force and they will get training in how to build earthquake resistant structures, and be employable long into the future.

Don’t include them, as was done in El Salvador and Honduras and Columbia and South Africa, and “those informal companies will remain ignored and neglected from financial services, education, training and the possibility of slowly climbing up the economic ladder,” Lizarralde said.

Perhaps most importantly, most agree, is that local people need to be involved in the decision-making process. Let them make the decisions and they will live with them.

Inflict the decisions and the projects, expensive and well-intentioned though they may be, and they will often fail.

•••

The problem with rebuilding infrastructure in a disaster zone is that it involves much more than physical structures — all those water pipes and electrical lines and simple houses are the templates for people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Rebuilding properly is frustratingly complex, incorporating the social, economical, physical and psychological needs of a human population.

Working with one contractor is much easier than dealing and inspecting the work of seven different local contractors. The projects must go in phases, slowly, one spot at a time.

It all takes a lot of time.

Aid organizations often don’t want to deal with those complexities, Lizarralde said, and they don’t want to take all that time.

They want to build houses they can show off in pictures, not sewage pipes that no one can see. Haitian President Rene Preval said the country needed $93 million just to fix the country’s sewage drains to avoid flooding.

On the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, reporters will once again swarm Port-au-Prince, and they will report that very little has been done. The media will be outraged, Lizarralde said, and then the donors will be outraged. NGOs and municipalities and the central government will be put under tremendous pressure.

“They will start making mistakes,” Lizarralde said, as people say: ‘We have to act quickly.’

“That’s the way things happen. That’s kind of how the industry works, in a way.”

There are signs of hope, however. The fact the media is still talking about Haiti nearly three months after the quake is both strange and heartening, Lizarralde said.

Unlike in previous disasters, the debate is taking place out in the open, and not just behind closed doors.

Haitians’ long-standing pleas that more resources be transferred outside of Port-au-Prince and to agricultural renewal are finally being heard.

Foreign officials, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton, are going so far as to concede that previous foreign policies are partly to blame for Haiti’s economic wretchedness.

For example, forcing free-trade markets on Haiti led to the influx of subsidized rice exports from countries like the U.S., decimating the agricultural economy during Clinton’s tenure.

“Listening to the radio, inviting experts, talking about what is the right thing to do,” Lizarralde said. “I think it’s an important move toward making things change this time.”

rbruemmer@thegazette.canwest.com