lessons from the tragedy in haiti

27 01 2010

[By SD]   I went to a very interesting seminar yesterday at Berkeley on the preliminary reconnaissance of the tragic Haiti Earthquake. You can watch the entire webcast on:

 http://peer.berkeley.edu/publications/haiti_2010/related_events_haiti.html.

You can find the photo collection of the speaker (Eduardo Fierro) at:

http://peer.berkeley.edu/publications/haiti_2010/images/haiti_photo_gallery_jan16/album/index.html

My overall impression was that:

1) This disaster was tragic, but unfortunately not unique. Similar to many developing countries, the tragedy was not caused by the earthquake, but by bad construction and related policies

2) We, as engineers, can help Haiti through grassroots actions, organizations, and networks, such as Build Change or GeoHazard International

3) The most important and effective change, in my opinion, relies on effective policy. A proper building code must be prepared for the region (which is not particularly difficult), and effective policies need to be in place to enforce that building code (very difficult and complex). It is shocking and tragic to see that reconstruction is taking place in a similar manner to the past with no government oversight, and that there is no major international pressure on the Haitian government for proper reconstruction. Proper reconstruction can be over-looked in many developing countries due to the extent of damage, prioritization of needs, and the necessity of rapid construction for immediate recovery of major activities.

4) Lessons learned for Tehran: you may not have had a major earthquake in your recent memory (similar to Haiti), but due to the vicinity of the active faults around you, the bad quality of construction, lack of ethical practice, bad economy, high population, and the concentration of national resources, you are facing a huge risk – in fact the entire country and perhaps the region is facing a huge risk. Even though the building code in Iran is great, there is still a lot of unethical practice taking place, while there are many sensitive old buildings that are not going to withstand a major quake. The outcome of a possible earthquake in Tehran (which is very likely in the next few years) is far beyond what we see in Haiti today (both in terms of human life and and the impact on national and global economy). You and I, as engineers, need to be conscious of this risk and the impact of our design today and take responsibility. We can start from ourselves, if not at a national policy level yet.

5) I think recent advances in information and communications technology are going to play a critical role in the upcoming earthquakes, particularly in terms of emergency response and management – even in the developing world. More to come on this in the following posts.

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