In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, it seemed as if the city of Port-au-Prince had been completely destroyed. There was talk of relocating the capital or of bulldozing large swaths to make way for new construction. As the rubble began to be cleared, it became clear that for each building that was severely damaged, there was another with only slight damage and a third that was basically untouched.
I brought Dr. Kit Miyamoto of Miyamoto International, one of the top seismic engineering companies in the world, to Haiti a week after the earthquake to help with the early response. Initially Kit focused on the main government buildings including the National Palace and the different Ministry offices as well as the main private sector buildings including the hotels and factories. PADF had Kit train two engineers to evaluate the houses used by all of PADF’s staff in an effort to help them to rebuild. As we began doing these assessments, it became clear that many people were sleeping under tarps not because their house was actually unsafe, but because they were afraid that it was. We realized that we could get large numbers of people out of camps and tents and back into their homes if we could convince them that their house was safe.
We had been working closely with the Ministry of Public Works (known by its French Acronym of MTPTC) and proposed to them the possibility of conducting a detailed assessment of the buildings that had been impacted by the earthquake. The Ministry of Public Works embraced the idea. Miyamoto brought in the United Nations Operations (UNOPS) with funding from the World Bank, and PADF obtained funding from the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA—part of the United States Agency for International Development—USAID).
UNOPS obtained their funding first and set up the basic operations. They established the basic infrastructure that was used throughout the program including the use of GPS-enabled PDAs as data collectors and the central database.
Miyamoto developed a slightly modified version of the ATC20 form, the standard form used in California to rapidly assess earthquake damage, for use in Haiti. They then began training Haitian engineers to conduct the evaluation. The trained engineers were equipped with a PDA and sent in groups to completely canvas a neighborhood. At each structure, the engineer would use the PDA to take a picture of the building and the GPS coordinates. They then inspected the building, going through every room, and completed a short questionnaire on the building directly on the PDA. At the end of the inspection, each building was spray-painted with a highly visible tag that indicated whether the building was safe for use (“green-tagged”), damaged, but stable (“yellow-tagged”) or unstable (“red tagged”). Each engineer was able to inspect an average of 10 structures a day. At the end of each day, the data was downloaded directly into the central database.
Initially, owners were reluctant to allow the engineers into their homes and were suspicious of the program. PADF worked closely with its partners in the poor urban areas and had to convince the people in their neighborhoods to trust in the program. As the program grew and became better known, owners began seeking out the engineers and asking for advice.Another important development as the program progressed was that the Haitian inspectors became very familiar with the different types of damage caused by the earthquake and the importance of better construction techniques.
Through this program, over 400,000 structures were tagged—nearly every building in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area that was impacted by the earthquake. The assessment showed that 53% of the houses were safe for use (green-tagged), 26% needed minor repairs to be made useable (yellow), and only 24% were unstable and needed either major repairs or to be demolished and rebuilt (red).
One of the striking points that the assessment brought to light was how widespread the damage was. Rather than having a core area of red tagged houses surrounded by rings of yellow tagged and then green tagged houses, nearly every neighborhood is a mixture of green, yellow, and red tagged buildings. Furthermore, through an analysis of the levels of damage suffered by the different types of buildings, we found that residential buildings, schools, and churches were the hardest hit and commercial buildings fared best.
Taken together, these points reinforce the conclusion that the poor quality of construction in Haiti was the main cause of the widespread building failures.
The most striking impact of the assessment was its role in helping people to return to their green-tagged homes. The inspectors reported that before the assessment, roughly half of the houses that became green-tagged had been occupied. After the house was green-tagged, occupancy jumped to 80% with most unoccupied houses being in neighborhoods that had predominantly yellow and red tagged houses.