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Report From the Ground: Haiti Earthquake

Published on 20 July 2010

Author(s): Architecture for Humanity/Karl Johnson

Type:  Essay

Small victories on the ground

There is no typical day in Haiti. Our team wakes up to the crow of roosters. Most days revolve around site visits and assessments as we try to guide our partners in planning. Driving anywhere in Port-au-Prince takes two hours. We get an early start but it will be 9 am before we arrive at the site of a potential project–a school for the camp in Pétionville.

The camp, located on a former golf course, is currently home to 50,000. The school is little more than a tarp supported by two-by-fours, and shelters 350 learners. The school–and the camp, for that matter–is sited on a steep grade. We discuss alternatives and settle on a transitional school plan as it’s not clear if the camp will remain at this location. In the meantime, we promise to come back to build better temporary supports for the school.

From here it’s another two hours to the next school site. Port-au-Prince traffic turns even the shortest distance into a grueling bumper-to-bumper commute. However, a shortage of diesel derails our plans. Instead of surveying the next site, we spend the afternoon searching for fuel. Heavy rains begin to pour. By the time we make it back to the camp the next day, the little school we inspected has been washed away altogether. We will need to start again.

"Day to day in Port-au-Prince is the knowledge that everything wants to be done today,” says our Regional Program Manager Eric Cesal. “Every piece of rubble could be picked up, and every tarp could be righted. It is also the knowledge that nothing (or at least very little) is going to happen today. You will look for small victories.” Small victories are part of the plan. For most working on the ground, they are the plan.

Rebuilding Center

In addition to an alarming loss of life from the January 12 earthquake, Haiti suffered an unprecedented loss of buildings and infrastructure, as well as assurance in local building methods. Organizing a response to these issues is an enormous undertaking. Architecture for Humanity, as a design advocacy group, has observed that in responding to crises, design could be better employed not in prescribing solutions at specific sites but in empowering Haitians to knowledgeably direct the rebuilding of their country.

The idea of a Rebuilding Center was modeled on what we had developed for Biloxi, Mississippi following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: a design services office that helped transform, with unanticipated rapidity, a city struggling to survive the aftermath of a hurricane into a thriving and proud community.

The Center partitioned neighborhoods into manageable design blocks, assigned pro-bono architects and construction crews, and oversaw resident involvement in the design and construction process. Elevating this proven system to an entire country, then, requires another level of coordination.

Peter and Schendy getting things leveled

Our first Haiti Rebuilding Center was opened in Port-au-Prince in March. We’ve repurposed a mansion into a working office and hub for volunteer professionals–complete with project boards and wifi–another small victory. The center has to date focused on adding to the local professional capacity and supporting the rebuilding effort in sometimes small but tangible ways.

Our team, which is composed of Haitian and Haitian American building professionals, has been busy the past several weeks coordinating on the ground with other nonprofits and the local architectural community to assess standing schools and explore transitional school designs. We’ve visited a variety of sites–from urban slums like Cité Soleil to isolated mountain villages accessible by single-lane roads behind makeshift markets. As rebuilding ramps up and volunteer professionals are activated, they’ll need to be paired with a local team member to be effective.

Rebuilding 101 Manual

In February, while relief supplies were still stuck on the tarmac, our headquarters was assembling a Haiti-specific Rebuilding 101 Manual–basic wisdom needed for earthquake- and hurricane-resistant buildings using the most abundant construction material in Haiti–concrete block. If people were immediately rebounding from the earthquake, a document of general advice could guide their decisions and structural understanding.

At 35 pages, the graphic-based manual aims for a broad audience–anyone from Haitian community members to NGO leaders to supporters from abroad could utilize the advice. With the help of Haitian Americans who had reached out to Architecture for Humanity, we’ve translated the manual into French and Haitian Creole We hand these out to local masons and distribute them on USB drives to everyone we meet.

We’ve also provided a grant to partner Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) to train local masons in better building practices. Most buildings were built by informal trades, including schools, clinics and other vital infrastructure. Construction training will be a large part of the work ahead.

Schools ASAP

An estimated 87% of schools in Port-au-Prince were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake; Léogâne, at the epicenter, lost 96% of their schools while Jacmel, a small port town on the Southern coast, lost 88% of their schools. Even as organizations were sourcing emergency housing, it was clear that children needed to be provided safe schools as quickly as possible. The immediacy not only determined kids’ safety and well-being, ensuring a continuity of their education, but determined the ability of their parents to go back to work.

The Haitian government mandated restarting school on April 6. In many cases, temporary schools have been erected with little but 2x4’s and tarpaulins to house the returning children. The few schools to survive the earthquake have been taken over by squatters, while other schools received children but the faculty have vanished. Even before the quake, only half of the children in Haiti were attending school. Now, attendance figures indicate only half that many students returned in April.

What’s more, any temporary schools forming in the tent cities suggest a permanence that is dangerous to encourage. So there is a balance to be struck. Architecture for Humanity has experience with “transitional schools” that repurpose a temporary frame with permanent components. Schools such as the Al Hidaya School in Sri Lanka have demonstrated efficacy in cutting lead time for construction from several years to several months, mobilizing resources and voluntary labor toward safe solutions while adjacent permanent schools were built.

Open source participation

We’ve been logging the progress of our team through several blogs, most notably StudentsRebuild. Here we have teamed up with the Bezos Family Foundation and the Global Nomads Group to provide an online infrastructure for middle- and high-school student teams to learn about and raise money for permanent school construction in Haiti.

Global Nomads Group has experience hosting interactive video classes with online curricula which for this project will teach all aspects of the design and construction process for these schools–from site surveys to structural reinforcing to passive design to occupancy. The curriculum is set to start in the fall. Over 70 teams from across the United States and the world have already been launched from StudentsRebuild.

Our work would not be possible without online tools such as the Open Architecture Network. Founded in 2006 with funding from the TED Prize, the Open Architecture Network has to this point served as an open-source network for humanitarian architectural design. Projects featured on the site, as submitted by their designers, provide photographs, diagrams and construction documents with creative commons licenses–freeing them to appropriation by like-minded builders. Now its capacity is expanding to assist our Haiti team as a field resource. The Open Architecture Network pages for the Haiti Rebuild program act as a hub for news and project details of all activity from the ground.

Days ahead

We’re making our new home in Haiti and are hoping to head into our first construction season as early as October. Working hand in hand with local professionals to answer the day-to-day challenge faced by our partners in rebuilding a nation is no small task. We at Architecture for Humanity are playing our small role in the Haiti’s reconstruction effort as efficiently and openly as possible–helping communities rebuild with dignity and pride. We’re tracking every small victory as we go.

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Karl Johnson has been a Haiti team Design Fellow at Architecture for Humanity since February 2010. He directs communications and coordinates logistics for the ground team from the Architecture for Humanity headquarters in San Francisco. Karl holds a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and a Certificate in Interdisciplinary Design from the Institute without Boundaries in Toronto. There he co-developed a sustainable rural renewal plan for the Government of Costa Rica. Karl is LEED-AP.

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