It’s often said that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.A tragic example of this took place earlier this year. On January 12th Haiti was rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. More than 200,000 Haitians perished; homes, buildings and other infrastructure were demolished.
In February, 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 but left most of the country’s buildings standing.
Why was the damage so much worse in Haiti than in Chile? The proximity of each country’s capitals to the epicenters, and the preparedness of the Chilean population both played roles in mitigating the damage. But more than anything, strict building codes and strong building materials saved thousands of lives in Chile; the lack of them led to Haiti’s staggering death toll.
Chile experienced an even stronger earthquake in 1960. Since then, Chileans have taken 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 annual 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 steal reinforced concrete and has been the material of choice for many Haitian builders. 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 towards Chile’s.
Aid money needed for education on building to code
It will start with the millions of dollars in aid being poured into the country. On March 31st, a donors’ conference will take place in New York as international governments plan a long-term recovery for Haiti.
The next step 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 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.
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.