Engineer Recounts Haitian Earthquake Aftermath Experience

Photo: Eduardo Fierro gave a presentation detailing his experiences in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake Tuesday. He attributed the structural damage to a lack of architectural education.
Nathan Yan/Staff
Eduardo Fierro gave a presentation detailing his experiences in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake Tuesday. He attributed the structural damage to a lack of architectural education.

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Two weeks after the Haiti earthquake, Eduardo Fierro, president of Bertero, Fierro, Perry, Engineering, Inc., brought accounts of the destruction back to UC Berkeley, attributing much of the structural damage to a lack of education and sound infrastructure.

Fierro gave a lecture on campus Tuesday afternoon detailing his experiences in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.

"Many of the buildings were broken down ..." he said. "The smell was getting to be really bad from decaying bodies ... The part that really got to me was that humans were in the street, bloated, like animals."

Fierro, a UC Berkeley graduate, and four other researchers traveled to Haiti, staying there for a week with funding from the campus-based Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center. The purpose of the reconnaissance mission was to learn from the structural mistakes in order to prevent future catastrophes.

"You can learn what worked and what didn't work," he said.

Fierro said the combination of lack of attention to detail, poor building materials, lack of reinforcement and the density of construction are what brought down the Haitian capitol of Port-Au-Prince. In some cases people built on soft soil, using mud and sand for construction.

He saw 6-inch by 6-inch columns supporting whole houses-a dangerous architectural feat. But in Haiti there are no regulations and engineers often build structures quickly, with as inexpensive materials as possible, he added.

"In this case it's not an engineering problem it's an ... educational problem," said Stephen Mahin, director of the center.

According to Fierro, Haiti has three primary fault lines, and the country's last major earthquake was in the late 1700s. But in Haiti, he said, earthquakes are easily forgotten.

"These people are in denial that they're in earthquake country," he added. "Even though they just had one, they're saying it's an act of god."

But he said Haitians aren't wasting any time-they have already begun to rebuild using methods that have already proven to be problematic.

"This is a reconstruction," Fierro said, pointing to a picture of a man stacking blocks at a construction site. "They're building exactly the same way they had it before-reusing old blocks."

Without programs set up to educate builders and engineers, history could repeat itself, he added.

"Unfortunately, it's apparent that there's not a good means to get this education out there at this time," said Justin Hollenback, a UC Berkeley civil engineering doctoral candidate. "Education is a key, but I think we have to find a medium to get it out there and get it usable so people can actually learn from the mistakes that they're making ... so they can create change."

Fierro said his next trip to Haiti is planned for mid-February and will last for about 10 days. He said he plans on examining hospitals to find out why they were not damaged.

The data may aid humanitarian organizations working to rebuild Haiti.

"How many earthquakes do we need before someone steps up and solves this on a global basis?" Mahin asked.

Tags: HAITI EARTHQUAKE


Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato covers the environment. Contact her at [email protected]



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