By Cossy Roosevelt
Port-au-Prince, April 8, 2010:
The violent earthquake of January 12, which caused the death of more than 220,000 persons as well as significant material damage estimated at 7 billion dollars, has given rise to a serious debate about the reconstruction of Haiti. Different sectors involved in national life, including the international institutions that are offering assistance to the government of Haiti and the displaced population, are working out a plan to get the country back on its feet.
At a recent conference-debate organized by the Federation of Nature Lovers (FAN), held on Sunday March 28, 2010, the earthquake specialist Claude Preptit made the following statement: “Since the recent catastrophe, we have been able to gather information on only about 10% of the active faults lines in Haiti, although we are still not in a position to precisely identify the inactive faults lines.”
The Haitian expert was surprised to discover that in less than a month, research funded by the international community led to the production of maps that gave a fairly clear idea of the areas that presented a seismic risk. Mr.Preptit wondered why no serious study had been undertaken before January 12, given that many studies, done quite some time ago, had indicated the vulnerability of the Western Department due to an unexplained fault line extending from Kenskoff to Tiburon. According to the earthquake specialist, the loss of lives could have been limited.
“It is imperative that earthquakes and the resulting rate of soil movement be studied” added Mr Preptit, while insisting on the need for documentation that categorizes construction in Haiti. Without these tools, the specialist warns, engineers and architects cannot give security guarantees with regard to buildings, especially since cement has only a 50-year life span.
Construct earthquake-resistant cities
Following the destruction of more than 200,000 private homes and public buildings in the Haitian capital, the expression, “construct earthquake-resistant buildings” is on everyone’s lips. Mr Preptit thinks that the discussion should rather be about “earthquake resistant cities”, a measure that would prevent deadly catastrophes throughout the country. He cited as an example the city of California in the USA which was hit in 2007 by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, but which recorded only 63 deaths. He suggested that construction be carried out according to a clearly-defined urban plan. Another presenter at the conference, agronomist Jean André Victor, supported this view and placed emphasis on the need to survey the country for a better layout of buildings.
An earthquake-resistant city also includes the creation of safety zones that are at least 250 metres from homes; spaces for first aid units that are within a 2 km radius; establishment of a hierarchy of communication in order to avoid bottlenecks and placement of petrol stations in the outskirts of the cities.
Once the bases for establishing earthquake-resistant cities have been established, site preparation for the earthquake-resistant buildings can begin, bearing in mind the nature of the soil, the quality of materials, the types of foundation, the shape of buildings with respect to angles, openings and balconies, the choice of construction systems and wind-resistance systems; links between the different elements and earthquake-resistant insulation.
Cap-Haitien: Sound the alarm
In addition to Port-au-Prince, the experts have been trying to draw the attention of the authorities and the population in general to the seismic threat with respect to the second city. Claude Preptit is quite concerned by the behaviour of the Haitian authorities who, despite the awareness campaign that has been launched, are tardy in putting in place the obvious measures that will prevent a repetition of the drama of January 12. In fact, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake is expected in the north, notably in Cap Haitian. Given the configuration of this city which is over-populated and cramped, it would be nothing short of a disaster.
Time for recommendations
The conference-debate organized by the FAN, which was held three days before the meeting of donors in New York on the situation in the country after the January 12 earthquake, was the occasion for Claude Preptit and Jean Andre Victor to make recommendations to the stakeholders. The debate focused on the earthquake threat in Haiti, an element to be taken into account in the reconstruction plan in order to prevent a recurrence of past errors. The two experts are calling for a Seismic Monitoring Network, the production of seismic danger maps for all the districts, the creation of a national institution of specialists to participate in carrying out the works and to ensure constant follow-up, the drawing-up of an urban plan that takes into account threats of natural disaster and finally a reconstruction plan based on previously-acquired knowledge.
Given that it has been difficult up to this point to determine the amount of energy accumulated each year by the seismic fault lines, no one knows for sure when the next earthquake will occur in Port-au-Prince – whether in 10, 20, 40, 50 or 100 years. The experts have no answer, but they know that Haiti remains a country with a very high earthquake risk.
Since the 16th Century, the island of Hispaniola has been hit by several destructive earthquakes. The following years have been noteworthy with respect to seismic activity in the Caribbean: 1751, 1770, 1842, 1946, 1953, 1997, 2003 and the most recent, 2010.
Source: Panos Caribbean