Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Haiti Donors May Tie Aid to Stricter Building Codes

By Carmen Gentile

MIAMI -- A group of seismologists and engineers says donor nations should demand that Haiti adhere to strict building codes in exchange for reconstruction aid so that future earthquakes don't take such a heavy toll of death and damage, as the January earthquake did.

Following two days of meetings at the University of Miami, representatives from the federal government and academia concluded they would recommend such requirements to nations attending the international U.N. donors conference for Haiti at the end of the month in New York.

The requirements, they said, would prompt Haitian engineers to build earthquake-proof structures with greater ductility (flexibility) so they are capable of withstanding a quake similar to or stronger than the Jan. 12 tremors, which registered 7.0 on the Richter scale, left an estimated 200,000 people dead and destroyed much of the capital and surrounding areas.

Many of Haiti's now ruined structures were made of concrete reinforced with steel bars, engineers noted when visiting the island after the earthquake. While constructed to stand up to hurricane winds, the buildings proved much too rigid to withstand the recent quake.

The group suggested that building projects would have to meet certain pre-approved criteria to receive funding from donors like the United States Agency for International Development, which will likely be responsible for a significant portion of the billions of dollars in aid Haiti will receive in the coming months and years.

"Something like that is what the engineers and scientists would like to encourage," Wayne Pennington, a seismologist working with USAID, told AOL News.

Pennington and others would not provide specifics regarding the conditional aid proposal they would make to the United Nations later this month, noting that they were still deciding on the specific details of proposed building codes.

"Exactly what form they take, scientists and engineers are really not the right ones to figure out how to write those contracts," he said.

Building regulations aside, the seismologists on hand agreed that Haiti must prepare for the likelihood of another quake, based on the evidence they gathered from their investigation after Jan. 12.

"The whole island is in jeopardy," said Eric Calais, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University. Calais said he and many of his colleagues had long predicted that Haiti would be hit by an earthquake, though their studies of the country's fault lines received little notice.

Calais said data collected using satellite imagery to track the movement of the earth's crust suggest that Haiti would likely endure more earthquakes in the coming decades. But seismologists still cannot foresee exactly when a quake will strike.

"You cannot predict the earthquakes, but you can prevent the tragedy," said Olga Cabello, director of international development seismology at the Iris Consortium, an umbrella group for universities dedicated to seismic studies.

With more earthquakes likely, engineers at the meetings said sound designs for new buildings replacing those destroyed are vital to Haiti's survival when future quakes strike.

But building stronger, quake-resistant buildings means training Haitian engineers and builders in elements of earthquake-resistant construction, said Reginald DesRoches, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who traveled to Haiti to assess the damage.

Such training is challenging but feasible, said DesRoches. "There is a large population of Haitian engineers that are skilled, but they just haven't been trained in earthquake engineering," he said. "Now is the time for various countries to provide them with the knowledge."

Source: AOL.

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