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Disaster Management: Rebuilding Haiti – First Hand Account from Daniel O’Neil

I am guilty of having written against the idea of just rebuilding the chaos. Following the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake, it seemed as if all of Port-au-Prince had been destroyed. There was talk of moving the capital to somewhere else, as if nothing remained. But as we began digging through the rubble, we found that a lot of buildings were still standing.

For every building that had collapsed, there was another that was damaged but standing and another that was untouched. We realized that people were sleeping in camps, not because their house had collapsed, but because they were afraid to sleep inside.

To build Haiti back better, I recognized that the reconstruction had to be done in steps. Removing the rubble proved to be the first victory. Getting the unstable houses demolished would be next. But to truly begin the rebuilding process—and the rebuilding of thousands of lives—we needed to address the issue of the many damaged homes and the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Haitians.

Assessing the damage

To give people confidence to return to their houses in the weeks and months following the earthquake, the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) worked closely with Haiti’s Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Telecommunications (MTPTC) and Miyamoto International, a seismic engineering firm, to develop a program to inspect the houses and tag them green if they were safe for immediate use, yellow if they were damaged but stable, and red if they were so dangerous that no one should even enter. We received funding from the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) and began training Haitian engineers to conduct the assessments.

We had set out with modest goals, but the program was extremely well received. We received additional help through the UN and World Bank. In the end, we evaluated 412,000 buildings—nearly every building impacted by the earthquake!

More importantly, we helped hundreds of thousands of people to go home. It turned out that 220,000 of those structures were safe. People were allowed to return home immediately. This allowed hundreds of thousands of people to return home. Also, the 400 Haitian engineers who inspected the houses were able to study the impact of the earthquake on the different structures. They saw what held and what didn’t hold. They learned how to build better.

Repairing Homes

But the story does not end there. We had identified 90,000 damaged houses—yellow tagged houses. These are houses that can be repaired at a relatively low cost. The challenge was to fix them right. After all, the reason that so many buildings collapsed was that many had been built badly. As we began repairing homes, we knew that we had to be sure to repair them right.

Again we worked closely with the Haitian government and Miyamoto International to develop detailed guidelines for the repairs. We developed a repair manual that clearly showed exactly how to repair the cracked walls to make them 300 percent stronger than they had been. We then began training masons and contractors in the new techniques. We worked with the local suppliers of blocks, sand, and other construction supplies to explain the higher standards that we required.

And then we began repairing houses. House by house we refined our techniques. As the masons built the walls, we watched carefully to ensure that it was done right and made them redo it when it wasn’t. We worked closely with the Public Works department to help their inspectors to supervise the works.
At the two year anniversary, we will have repaired 5,000 houses, creating safe homes for 35,000 people. More importantly, we have trained 900 masons and have made sure that they build safe houses. We have worked through 14 local contractors and taught them how to build better. These Haitians are the ones who are building back a better Haiti.

Looking to the future

Repairing houses is only the first step in rebuilding Haiti. People need a safe place to live. But they also need better neighborhoods and jobs. PADF is working to move from Repairing houses to Rebuilding neighborhoods and Restoring livelihoods—PADF’s “3Rs” strategy.

Today, as I move about Port-au-Prince, I am reminded that we are making progress. Although we might end up rebuilding the chaos and face ongoing uncertainty about the future, one thing is for sure: we are working hard to help Haiti recover from one of the worst disasters to ever hit the Western Hemisphere. And in my opinion, that’s moving forward.

About Daniel O Neil

Daniel O Neil
Daniel O'Neil is the Senior Director for Caribbean Programs at the Pan American Development Foundation. A civil engineer with over 25 years of experience in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Mr. O’Neal holds a master’s degree in Project Management from the University of Washington and a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from West Virginia University. PADF is the non-profit foundation of the Organization of American States, established in 1962 to implement development programs, strengthen civil society and to aid victims of natural disasters. In 2010, it helped more than 10 million beneficiaries in 22 countries.

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