The utter devastation caused by an earthquake on Jan. 12 in Port-au-Prince. The incomprehensible number of dead: more than 200,000 confirmed, and just as many still buried, unreachable in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The country unable to respond, as the earthquake flattened the capital and seat of power.
As we try to make sense of the loss, the unmistakable and sadder truth is that, unlike the tsunami ruin in Indonesia, the loss of life in Haiti was largely preventable.
Earthquakes and tsunamis (created by earthquakes) are neither predictable nor preventable, and therefore are inescapable. But as an architect, I have learned to find some solace in a simple premise: In an earthquake, if a building survives, so do its occupants. The unavoidable truth is that a majority of people who died in Haiti did so because the buildings they were in collapsed from the earthquake.
In California, we are no strangers to earthquakes, but our last large earthquake was more than 20 years ago. For those who are young, there is no frame of reference to what happens when the earth shakes and how powerless you can feel when the earth rolls below your feet.
Although the earth shook in Haiti for a mere 35 seconds, in that short time the damage was done and the buildings fell, never giving Haitians a chance to escape. It was reported, minutes after the earthquake, that a huge plume of dust mushroomed over the city, probably caused by the pulverization of buildings as they pancaked on themselves.
Earthquakes create lateral force (sideways movement) that is different from the forces of weight and gravity. Even as toddlers, we learn quickly how to stack blocks on top of one another so that they won’t fall down. Push down on the stacked blocks and little will happen, but push lightly from the side and the blocks will fall. An earthquake is an example of that sideways push, amplified into short, violent shakes.
Buildings in California are made to resist these lateral movements with vertical rigidity. Our homes are tied to their foundation with hold-downs, so they won’t jump off. Vertical rigid walls, called shear walls, connect our houses from the foundation to the roof to withstand sideways movement. Fire stations, police stations and hospitals are made to even stricter standards, so that in times of crisis, they will be operational as first-responders.
Unfortunately, Haiti had no building codes. People built as they saw fit and as they could afford.
With no understanding of earthquakes, people built with concrete and masonry, feeling safe in the solidity of the materials. But with no steel rebar reinforcing tying the floor to the walls to the foundation and roof, the walls literally exploded from the sideways forces of the earthquake.
Pictures from Haiti show large slabs of upper floors, still whole, tilting unnaturally in the street, where they shouldn’t be. The government in Haiti didn’t even invest in itself, spending on aesthetics over safety, and as a result, the devastation of the government buildings has left the government of Haiti powerless to help its own.
No building, even in California, will survive an earthquake unscathed, but that is not the main point of building codes — life-safety is. Building codes are intended to allow the building to survive long enough for the occupants to exit the building and survive another day.
Haiti will rebuild. Hopefully, the international community, America included, will invest in a sustainable solution. We live on an Earth with limited resources. Sustainability in its simplest form is building what is worth the effort to build and building it to last, with the best use of resources. For Haiti, rebuilding to survive the next earthquake is the only logical choice.
For a change: Create an emergency plan for your family. Where would your family meet up if your home, your town, your state were devastated?
To make a difference: Give for Haiti’s future at www.architectureforhumanity.org.
To make a stand: Create emergency provisions for your family, with at least food, water and first aid.
• Christina D.B. Frankel is a 20-year Tracy resident, architect and mother of three. Her column, Living Green, runs twice monthly in the Tracy Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.