I have nightmares about the faces in photographs this week. Pleading eyes trapped in rubble. Eyes shut forever. A limb sticking out from a ton of concrete. I can't imagine what it must be like on the ground in Port-au-Prince as anguished cries for help have, by the fifth day, largely fallen silent and been replaced by the stench of death. I couldn't be part of a decision whether to continue picking through collapsed concrete to reach living people, or bring out bulldozers to haul away rubble regardless of what -- or who -- is still part of it. (Photo credit: LA Times)
And as I view the photographs, I want to scream: where is the rebar?
The mainstream media has told me exactly where the rebar in Haiti is, or rather where it isn't.
-- New York Times: "Steel reinforcing bar is also expensive, he said, so there is a tendency to use less of it with the concrete."
-- BBC: "People are skimping on cement to try to cut costs, putting a lot of water in, building too thin, and you end up with a structure that's innately weaker," said Mr Haas, who was on his way to Haiti to help assess the safety of damaged buildings.
A study by the Organization of American States concluded last month that many of the buildings in Haiti were so shoddily constructed that they were unlikely to survive any disaster, let alone an earthquake like the one that devastated Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, the man who supervised the report said Wednesday.
Structures were built on slopes without proper foundations or containment structures, using improper building practices, insufficient steel and insufficient attention to development control, the urban planner said.
I don't fault Haitians for building the way they did -- they built what they could with what little they had in the face of desperate poverty. The country has no building code at all; the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors began working on a building code in July 2009. And Haiti has only one earthquake engineer, still finishing up his doctorate.
Hammurabi's first building code nearly 4,000 years ago mandated harsh punishment:
If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
If people rebuild the way they've been building, structures will collapse in the next earthquake. Residents of a shantytown are planning their rebuilding -- with plastic -- as they bury their dead. Yet conforming to building codes is expensive, as any whiny American developer will tell you. (Photo credit: LA Times)
Should Haiti be excused from having a building code in light of its crushing poverty? Some commenters point out that a building code seems like a luxury in a community without running water or electricity, and a meaningless luxury without a functioning government.
Most people here would, rightly, reject the approach of one classy Republican twit who tweeted that "the best thing the int'l community can do is tend the wounded, bury the dead, and then LEAVE. That includes all UN and charity." Haiti will rebuild, and it will need resources beyond its own abilities.
Is the answer a Building Code-Lite? For example, should buildings be constructed from bamboo and tin, neither of which is terribly strong but at least won't pancake in a collapse? Seismologists in India recognize that multistory concrete structures are far more vulnerable to collapse than single story bamboo homes (h/t to divineorder). Haitians have forsaken the corrugated tin roof in favor of the unreinforced concrete roof for hurricane reasons, but is that wise in earthquake country?
On first blush, a Building Code Lite sounds realistic. However, is it preferred to a stronger building code because it's more flexible and realistic than a California-style building code, or does it simply reflect a soft bigotry: Haitian lives are less valuable than others' lives? If the margin of safety is lowered to make it easier to build to code, does that reflect a value that Haitians don't deserve safety? Is it imperialistic to seek to impose California building codes on Haiti, or racist to ignore those codes? (Photo credit: Getty Images)
I don't have answers. I'm not an engineer. I do have some experience litigating post-1994 Northridge earthquake cases, which has made me into a firm believer that building codes save lives. The title may well provoke a flame war, but I hope to ask questions that will be thrashed out in the months ahead after the immediate crisis passes. Haiti first needs doctors, but later it will need engineers.