When civil engineering faculty member Justin Marshall arrived in Haiti on Jan. 26, 14 days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the capital city of Port-au-Prince, it was the first time he had set foot on the tiny island. Though it had been two weeks since the quake — now considered the sixth deadliest earthquake in recorded history — Haitian citizens were still without electricity, water or secure shelter; and they remained fearful of powerful aftershocks. Marshall was there to evaluate the earthquake’s damage and assess the stability of affected structures in and around the port city. The devastation was unlike anything he had ever seen, even having spent a year deployed with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Clearly, there was plenty of work ahead of him.
As soon as they could, Marshall’s Haiti group went to work. The team included engineers and experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Washington, Georgia Tech and Baldridge and Associates of Honolulu. The U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilitated the team’s assignments to report on the stability of structures, many of which were linked to local United Nations efforts. Marshall’s group reported findings on the structural stability of more than 50 buildings and bridges in Port-au-Prince and outlying port areas, including barracks for peacekeepers, hospitals, motor pools and schools — some for American families at the U.S. embassy.
By entering and examining structures previously marked by search and rescue crews, Marshall and the team recorded areas near the epicenter with a 62 percent collapse rate of buildings whose main structural elements were affected. Eighty-five percent of these structures were reported as too damaged to repair. From the outside, they looked like what Marshall calls “a stack of pancakes on top of each other."
And each day presented a new fear — aftershocks — which are common after an earthquake of such magnitude. There were 52 of them measuring 4.5 magnitude or greater in the two weeks following the initial quake. One of the team’s missions was to install equipment to monitor aftershocks resulting from the earthquake.
“Most of the people were living in tents," said Marshall. “They were too scared to stay in any of the buildings because of aftershocks. People were just too afraid to go inside."
In third world countries like Haiti, most residential homes are built by their owners, with little knowledge of construction techniques necessary for seismic resistance and minimal access to quality building materials. But that’s not the only thing that’s different about construction outside of the U.S.
“They’ll leave rebar sticking out at the top of the house so that they can go back, when their family expands or they have more money, and complete it later," said Marshall. “They just build up." That’s why Marshall is also bringing building materials used in Haiti and other third world countries to the U.S. and Auburn to explore their properties. They’re testing the materials’ strength and the quality of the brick, rebar and ties to develop new, simple, effective and affordable building materials.
“They’re knocking mortar off bricks and building right back the same way it was before," he said. “Better techniques and better materials could substantially improve the stability of their homes." Along with groups like Confined Masonry Network, Marshall and others are developing concrete and masonry products that can be used to build cost-effective structures that are safe in earthquake zones. However, even with better products, citizens need information on safer building practices; and one of the major challenges is translating these educational materials for those who actually construct the buildings.
“Some of these groups are working on translating technical information into basic drawings so that a builder with no background in construction can have guidelines to build a safer home on his own," Marshall adds.
Marshall worked with several civil engineering graduate students, including Emily Dunham, Tom Hadzor, Dustin Sadler, Brian Rhett, Haitham Eletrabi, Taylor Rawlinson and Daniel Mundie, to use visual tools like Google Earth to view satellite images of locations around the world — from global to street level — and analyze grids of land in Haiti. By examining before and after images of the earthquake’s destruction, they can often determine if a structure has completely collapsed or merely suffered severe damage.
“A lot of the buildings out there, unfortunately, looked demolished," said Sadler.
These efforts, organized by the World Bank and the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, involved structural engineers, scientists and geographic information systems experts from across the globe. By establishing the Global Earth Observation Catastrophe Assessment Network, volunteers were able to conduct two phases of preliminary damage assessment from the aerial images. The results are already being used by World Bank planners for critical reconstruction and recovery planning. This is the first use of these technologies for earthquake recovery efforts.
“Much of the damage from the Haitian earthquake could have been prevented with proper building codes and construction practices," adds Rawlinson, whose graduate research focuses on the response of various structural systems to earthquakes. “Seeing the devastation serves as extra motivation to improve structural design that can better withstand earthquakes."
According to an announcement by the World Bank in January, just two days after Marshall’s arrival, volunteers had already identified more than 13,000 buildings as either totally destroyed or heavily damaged. This data, along with information on the size of the structures prior to the quake, is helping to assess the loss and devastation, as well as the needs for rebuilding the area — the most important part of assisting people there long term.
“I think the biggest thing I was able to get out of helping with this initiative is that, while I may not be part of a typical rescue organization, I was able to use the skills I am developing in a way to not only help others, but in this case, to further the relief efforts immediately after the earthquake," said Dunham. With iconic structures like Haiti’s national palace, ministry of health building and judicial palace destroyed, the Haitian people have a long road ahead, brick by brick, to recovering their country’s structural stability. With experts like Justin Marshall and his civil engineering graduate students, they are not alone.