Canadian Consulting Engineer

Outreach: The Day the Earth Came Alive

August 1, 2012
By J. Lynn Fraser

On January 12, 2010, at 4:52 p.m. local time, the streets of Haiti vibrated with life. School children in uniform, government workers, charcoal sellers and water carriers jostled amid the smells of soup joumou and chocolat des cayas.

On January 12, 2010, at 4:52 p.m. local time, the streets of Haiti vibrated with life. School children in uniform, government workers, charcoal sellers and water carriers jostled amid the smells of soup joumou and chocolat des cayas.

At 4:53 p.m. the earth 10 kilometres below Haiti came alive. Two tectonic plates pushed against each other like giant Sumo wrestlers causing a magnitude 7 earthquake. The quake, estimated to have lasted from 30 seconds to nearly a minute, was followed by over 40 aftershocks, some of which measured over magnitude 5 on the Richter scale. At 4:54 p.m. life changed forever in Haiti.

The devastation, both to human lives and to infrastructure, was extensive. The earthquake’s epicentre was 16 kilometres southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. It caused the deaths of 316,000 Haitians while injuring an additional 300,000. Nearly 1.3 million people were dislocated, with over 97,000 homes devastated and 188,000 homes disintegrated in Port-au-Prince and across southern Haiti.1

“I was shocked when it happened,” says Liz Oldershaw a structural engineer at Halsall Associates in Toronto. “Our job is to make buildings stand up. An earthquake of this magnitude in a place like Haiti is heartbreaking.”

Oldershaw explains that after the earthquake her company “had expressed interest in helping out if the right opportunity presented itself.” A friend of Oldershaw’s from university, David Korpela, told her about his work in Haiti as the country director for Finn Church Aid (FCA)2. Korpela mentioned that while FCA had funding for its work in Haiti, it needed professionals to contribute their skills to help rebuild schools.

Oldershaw approached her supervisor, Shahe Sagharian, to ask if Halsall would like to participate in the FCA’s project. Sagharian, in turn, asked Oldershaw for a proposal estimating time commitments and a budget. After Halsall’s board reviewed the proposal, the project was born. Halsall invited three additional structural engineering firms, Quinn Dressel and Associates, Read Jones Christoffersen and Blackwell Bowick Partnership, to a meeting and they came on board for a one-year commitment to work with the FCA and with the Episcopal Church of Haiti. Eventually the project was extended by six months with three of the four firms staying on during that period.

Dan Carson from Halsall’s Ottawa office was the first engineer to visit the sites, providing reconnaissance. Shane Copp of Read Jones Christoffersen became the project’s mainstay and was in Haiti on the FCA project from October 2010 to April 2012. Two engineers from Blackwell Bowick, Tim Joyce and Michael Hopkins, each came to Haiti to work for a month and a half, giving Copp a break to return to Toronto. Oldershaw remained in Toronto, coordinating the project.

Two elementary (up to grade six) schools were chosen for the Canadian engineers to work on. One was St. Joseph School in Embouchure, situated in a mountainous region. To reach the school from Port-au-Prince takes a three-hour drive and a two-hour walk. “It is underserved by both NGO’s and the government, and that was part of the reason why it was chosen,” notes Copp.

The second school chosen was St. Matthieu School, in Léogâne, a port town 35 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince.

 Haiti is a challenging building environment. Some materials are too expensive and others too heavy. The mountainous terrain surrounding the St. Joseph School meant that materials had to be carried in. In the later stages, 13 men carried a generator over mountainous terrain and a river to the school. The St. Joseph School is made entirely from wood. Wood is used for the rural schools because it is lighter, especially when it has to be transported by hand. St. Matthieu School was a reinforced concrete structure, with timber roof trusses and rubble masonry infill.

The illiteracy rate in Haiti is high. An important aspect of the project was to involve locals in the building process. This meant that all construction drawings had to be very literal in their rendering. All the engineering drawings were done in Canada. “You had to draw things exactly as they are to be constructed,” Oldershaw explains.

Both schools were built according to requirements set by the Haitian Ministry of Education (Genie Scolaire) and Canadian building codes. The requirements stated the classroom size, number of desks and computers, and percentage of windows. In Canada the team designed eight different prototypes with St. Joseph School and St. Matthieu School forming the baseline prototype. Both schools are hurricane and earthquake resistant. They also have solar panels.

At the St. Joseph School only hand tools were available and there was no cell phone service. “You needed to think of ways to push things ahead,” Copp recalls. Despite the conditions, deadlines had to be met as money for the project “had to be spent by a certain time.” Meetings had to take place even if they took hours to get to. Copp’s ability to adapt, honed through his travels in Africa, India and Indonesia, was important. “I was a facilitator, engineer, and architect. Whatever I needed to be, I was. The day before St. Matthieu’s opened I was cleaning windows and cleaning up garbage.”

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a Haitian village to teach a Canadian engineer how to live and work in Haiti. “Many people … taught me Creole – the engineers, the drivers, the housekeepers, pretty much anyone I worked with got hit with questions,” says Copp.

“I loved it so much,” Copp says of his time in Haiti. His favourite moment was taking a bath in a river “buck naked” under a full moon because in that rural area there was no running water. “I laughed out loud because 24 hours earlier I had been in Toronto,” he remembers. Another moment was less pleasant when Copp was confronted by a man who wanted money. Copp takes the incident in his stride. He understands that to some Haitians, non-Haitians are seen as wealthy.

One individual who understands both the Haitian perspective and that of the international community is the Right Honorable Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s Governor General from 2005 to 2010. Born in Port-au-Prince, her family came to Canada as refugees in 1968. Today Madame Jean is the UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti.

Coordination and integration as well as sustainability and responsibility are stressed by Madame Jean for the long term health of Haitian society, economics, and infrastructure. “Engineers are absolutely key to Haiti’s reconstruction. Engineering is critical to build sustainable infrastructure. Roads will connect cities and goods [and will] help the commercial mobility of goods and people and regions,” she asserts.

Madame Jean adds, however, while choosing her words with care: “It can be rewarding for international NGOs to say that they are doing X and X in Haiti,” However, she argues, there has to be a change from “the logic of assistance to the logic of responsibility, using Haitian solutions that are based on a Haitian perspective and that is supported by partners from the international community.”

For its part, FCA has ensured that as part of the capacity building aspects of the project the local engineers will have long-term opportunities to develop their professional skills. “We had the same local engineers working with us since near the beginning of the project. There are now four local engineers,” notes Copp.

Three additional schools were being worked on by the time the Canadian engineers left Haiti.

“I have embarked on a crusade to keep Haiti on international radar to ensure the international community honours its commitments,” Madame Jean says emphatically. “My dream for Haiti is to start to se
e sustainable results in Haiti 5 to 10 to 20 years from now if we keep pace.… If we fail in Haiti, we fail the world – because Haiti is a microcosm of what international aid, cooperation, and support can do.”cce

J. Lynn Fraser is a freelance writer in Toronto.

1 There is dispute amongst journalists, NGOs and the Haitian government as to the final death tolls:

The figures given are according to the US Geological Survey based on estimates of January 12, 2010:



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