Category Archives: Haiti

In Defense of the Haitian Structural Engineer

Engineers worldwide share a common bond.  An engineer’s primary professional responsibility is to the public.  Therefore, Engineering can be likened to a “calling”, much like nursing.  Engineers take on significant responsibilities and their associated liabilities, and many feel that they are not fairly compensated for the work that they do – yet they continue to work.

Major national disasters, that test the built environment, can be viewed as opportunities to significantly improve national building practices.  These opportunities exist in every country, regardless of its level of development. 

When major earthquakes occur in any country in this world, we normally observe significant damage to older masonry and concrete buildings, whether they are schools, libraries, offices, churches, or houses.  We also observe less damage to recently constructed commercial buildings that would have benefited directly or indirectly from structural engineering services.  That is exactly what we seem to observe in Haiti, and it is exactly what we would expect to observe in London, Paris, New York, Madrid, Toronto, or Bridgetown.

The following are relatively  recently constructed multi-storey buildings that survived. 



Th following are older masonry and reinforced concrete buildings, and houses that were severely damaged.



During my deployment, I was surprised by the frequent attempts to associate the Haitian engineers with the damaged buildings, rather than with the recently constructed commercial buildings that survived.  I have not read of any attempts to link engineers with any of the damaged structures from the earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida, floods in Europe, the tsunami in Indonesia, and even the recent earthquake in Chile.  Why this apparent double standard?

 Why is there this effort to link Haitian engineers to the failed buildings which were unlikely to have received their structural engineering services.  Why this effort to show them as less-than-competent before international funding agencies and aid agencies, despite the fact that most buildings that appeared to have been designed by structural engineers did survive?

A reasonable explanation of this evidence is greed.  With approximately US$9B in development aid expected, a strategy of discrediting Haitian, and by extension, Caribbean based Engineers can ensure that they are never trusted with any primary design role in the reconstruction phase.  If this is a strategy that is  being employed, then it can partially explain why the group of qualified Caribbean based volunteer structural engineers have yet to be deployed.

UNOPS had expressed their concerns about the competence of the engineers being deployed by the various agencies in Haiti.  This was not surprising, since most, if not all, of those deployed by these agencies were unlikely to have the relevant experience of ever designing a building for the multiplicity of hazards experienced in the Caribbean.  The problem for Caribbean based engineers is the false perception that a North American, European, or Asian based engineer is intrinsically more qualified.

Let me conclude with some recommendations.  Engineers should not be deployed to disaster regions to displace the local engineers, but rather, to assist them where necessary.  Since the local engineers are the principal stewards of their country’s built environment, those deployed should try to improve the level of local design and construction practices.  There is a time and place for everything.  There will come a time for competitively tendering for work, but the critical relief phase is not that time.

Let me endorse Jesus’ recommendation that we should always treat others the way that we would want to be treated.  Let me also recommend the following approach by Lao Tzu.

Go to the people.

Live among them.

Learn from them.

Love them.

Start with what they know.

Build on what they have.

But of the best leaders,

When their task is accomplished,

When their work is done,

The people all remark

“We have done this ourselves”. 




Teaching Haiti to Fish

One sustainable and effective way that Barbados can help Haiti at this time is for each secondary school to sponsor one Haitian child per classroom.  The school’s old scholars and Parent Teacher Associations can assist with the necessary fundraising.  If a school does not have the spare capacity, then they can sponsor a child in another school that has the capacity.

 The Haitian student’s experience will be like that of attending a boarding school, with the exception that the student will board with a responsible host family.  This exercise can have a profound meaningful impact upon the students who will be immersed in a culture without the distractions of the levels of corruption, violence, and poverty to which they were accustomed.  Haiti should benefit developmentally from Barbados’ investment in the Haitian students, and Barbados can benefit from the cultural exchange.

 Barbados should be able to afford this type of investment, since most of the funds raised to support the Haitian students need not be converted to foreign currency, but can be spent in Barbados.  Perhaps some consideration can be given to using the funds already collected by Churches, schools, other social groups, corporations, and the Government, in this manner.



Haiti’s Fatal Flaw

Once again, the fatal flaw that is normally present in every disaster management plan has been revealed in Haiti.  This flaw is always revealed during every major disaster that occurs around the world.  However, whenever disaster management plans are updated to include the lessons learnt from the last incident, for some strange reason, the writers of the plans always ensure that this fatal flaw remains.

Over the past decade, I have spoken with disaster management representatives from most Caribbean countries, and explained how this fatal flaw can be effectively resolved.  However, despite there being general or unanimous agreement during our meetings, an examination of the revised plans shows that the fatal flaw remained.

There has been over one billion US dollars invested in Haiti over the past decade, and much of this was spent to ensure that Haiti had an effective disaster management response.  Yet, despite the advice and oversight provided by US, European, and UN disaster management consultants, the fatal flaw remained.  This flaw ensured that the monetary investment made in Haiti over the past decade was utterly wasted.

 Haitian shop owner, Edner Baptiste, described the effect of this fatal flaw in a Reuters news item dated 14 Jan 2009:

“There is no one in our country capable of sorting this out. Everyone is looking after their own families. Only the world can come to our rescue”.

 The fatal flaw in every national disaster management plan, is the assumption that the personnel who are trained to perform critical functions during a major disaster, will report to, or remain at their posts, and carry out their duties during a major national disaster.

 Whenever this assumption has been tested during a major national disaster, it normally fails.  Yet, this unverified assumption continues to be the principal foundation upon which all national disaster management responses are based.

 The trained personnel’s typical response during a national disaster is to abandon their posts to look after their families.  It is a normal response that appears to be supported by the Bible:

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

 It must be noted that a localised disaster, or a relatively low intensity national disaster, where the trained personnel can still contact their families while at their posts, is vastly different to a major national disaster where establishing such contact while on-duty is difficult.  

 How can this fatal flaw be resolved.  One effective solution would be to upgrade the houses of those expected to remain at their posts and perform critical functions during a major national disaster.  An alternative solution would be to relocate the family members to a functioning shelter.

 The US military understands that their soldiers on critical missions function better when they do not have to worry about the welfare of their families.  However, this principle appears to be completely ignored by US and UN disaster management consultants who include this fatal flaw in the disaster management plans that they write for other countries, including Haiti.