Haiti and building codes

Intact Digicel building (background) and devastated retail storefront (foreground) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12th, 2010.

102_2244, originally uploaded by Boston Gringo.

Professor Karl Stephan, writing at the Engineering Ethics Blog, notes that the horrific death toll in Haiti is more or less explicitly tied to its lack of suitable building codes, and that condition is itself precipitated by a government and polity that are less than enthusiastic about future-directed regulation:

Amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince, the tallest building in Haiti—the Digicel building, completed about a year ago—still stands with only minor cosmetic damage. Why? It was constructed according to American building codes to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake—and it did. A plainer argument for enforcement of building codes could not be imagined.

If Haiti has any building codes, I was unable to ascertain exactly what they amount to or where they apply. A project that was ongoing in 2007 under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) put up a website that stated Haiti has no national building code, and was focused on developing one. According to news reports, any building codes that exist are merely on paper, and people use cinder blocks that are basically home-made, reportedly weighing only about 12% of what the same size block would weigh if it was made under U. S. standards. Reinforcing bar is used sparingly, if at all, and when people need more room they just go down to the homemade cinder-block store and pile another story or two onto their house. Radical libertarians might do well to study Haiti as an example of what happens when government absents itself completely from the supervision of private and even public construction. Things can go well for a while, but when an earthquake hits, the devastation is nearly total.

— Stephan, Karl.  “Building Codes, Earthquakes, and Haiti.”  Engineering Ethics Blog, 25 January 2010.

Worth reading the whole thing, along with the sources (1, 2) the Professor cites.

Category: Current Affairs
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