Jon Buckley, a 32-year-old project engineer in our San Diego office, used his vacation and paid his own way to volunteer in Haiti for the firm’s nonprofit, Miyamoto Global Disaster Relief. Read his guest journal about his adventures – like eating BBQ goat, learning a few phrases in French and Creole and seeing the damage from a major earthquake for the first time in person. The highlight, though, was working on Miyamoto Relief’s newest project, the retrofit of a dangerous, 4,000-student school in the heart of Port-au-Prince.
February 2, 2015
It’s three days before I leave to Haiti and I’m getting very excited. I’ll be volunteering for the nonprofit Miyamoto Global Disaster Relief to help retrofit the Lycee Nationale de Petion-Ville, a three-story, concrete high school that represents a serious seismic collapse hazard.
Long before I joined Miyamoto International, while practicing structural engineering for other firms, I followed Kit’s travels and updates on structural engineering relief efforts around the world. As a young structural engineer, it was inspirational and motivational to see that structural engineers could use their engineering skills and knowledge to help others. This was something I always wanted to do and here I am on my way to Haiti. Not only am I excited to put my structural engineering expertise to use for a good cause, but also to travel to a new country, meet new people, eat local cuisine and learn about Haitian culture.
February 17, 2015 – Tuesday Morning
I arrived in Haiti yesterday afternoon. Wow, so much seen and done already. It’s an overload of new sights, but a welcome overload. Rene, a driver for Miyamoto International, picked me up at the airport. He spoke a good amount of English, but we didn’t understand everything we were saying to each other. Next we picked up Yves, a young engineer for Miyamoto, at the new UNICEF headquarters building currently in construction. His story is fascinating: born and raised in Haiti, he moved to U.S. and attended high school and college in the U.S., eventually earning his B.S. from U Mass and then his M.S. from Northeastern in civil engineering, specializing in structural. He chose to come back to work as an engineer in Haiti to help his home country.
Rene and Yves take me on a tour of downtown Haiti where old, damaged concrete and masonry buildings are in abundance. Some look vacant or re-inhabited – not by the original tenants, by the looks of it. Huge cracks line some of the buildings still left standing from the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which just marked its five-year anniversary. This is the first time I have seen post-earthquake damage in person.
We pass the collapsed Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption. Some of the façade is intact, but a majority of the structure was destroyed by the earthquake. Through our 30- to 60-minute drive through downtown, almost every inch of every street is lined with vendors: a huge continuous market, fruit, cold soft drinks, small plastic baggies of water, some kind of grilled chicken(looks delicious), car parts, small motors, cell phones, cell phone batteries, everything. Yves and Rene say you can come here to find the cheapest prices, much less than in stores. We go by the National Palace that sustained significant damage from the earthquake as well.
We pass very old gingerbread houses constructed in architectural styles from the French influence. The ones we see have been reinhabited as well. We go past a really cool market place building call the Iron Market. It is a steel structure open on all sides that houses a market.
We leave downtown to head to a suburb of Port-au-Prince called Petion Ville, where Miyamoto’s office and the Lycee National de Petion Ville are located. On the way, we stop at the Karibe Hotel, which was damaged during the earthquake and then retrofitted by Miyamoto. A new tower next to the original is nearly complete and was also engineered by us.
The quake that hit five years ago in January of 2010 was a 7.0-magnitude earthquake with an epicenter about 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince. I didn’t realize this, but it hit at approximately 5 p.m.; the kids were out of school by then. It was very fortunate that the quake hit after school hours.
February 18, 2015, Wednesday morning
Wednesday morning we learn about an electrocution accident that killed 16 people at the “Carnaval” celebration the evening before. We were planning on attending the celebration in downtown Port-au-Prince tonight, but it was cancelled because of this horrific accident.
We spend all day at the Lycee Nationale de Petion Ville taking measurements and photographs to create as-built drawings so we can model the building accurately for analysis. A whole team of us — Kit, Sabine, Yves, Beverly and I – head to the site in the morning together. Yves and Beverly, both engineers in the Haiti office, also are volunteering their time to work on the school. Monday through Wednesday are national holidays in Haiti for Carnaval/Mardi Gras, so there aren’t any students here today, although a few are some playing organized volleyball in the courtyard.
More than 4,000 students attend the school in two shifts per day. Most of the classrooms still had lessons on chalkboards in the classrooms we passed through and I was amazed at the some of the subjects they were studying. One of the chalkboards had beam bending stress equations and Euler-Bernoulli bending theory equations; very, very impressive to see they are learning this in a public high school because I didn’t learn this until the second year of college in structural engineering classes.
Lycee Nationale de Petion Ville is a three-story, concrete, U-shaped building. The framing systems are typical to Haitian construction: concrete columns, concrete ribbed slab with block used as slab form, and ungrouted, unreinforced masonry infill walls. The building is actually seismically separated at two locations to create three buildings. The 1-2” separation occurs along corridors and there is nothing covering the gaps. The top floors have full height transverse masonry walls between each class and very little full height walls in the longitudinal direction. The bottom story has very few full-height walls, creating a soft story at the first floor. There also are captive columns on the upper floors in which mid-height walls butt up against columns, creating a high concentration of seismic forces that lead to shear failure. The seismic resisting system of the existing building is concrete moment frames, but without proper seismic detailing and sufficient rebar the system is very weak and a high risk for collapse.
Above: The engineers and Dr. Kit Miyamoto come up with a seismic retrofit plan at the Petion-Ville concrete, soft-story school they say is very dangerous.
We three young engineers (Yves, Beverly and I) sit back and let Kit scheme retrofit ideas, then we all discuss new construction implications. We decide on braced frames or fluid viscous dampers with concrete moment frames for the first floor on the two main wings and concrete shear walls on the upper two floors. The smaller middle building will likely be reinforced with only concrete shear walls. We go over proposed brace locations for the first floors and concrete shear wall locations on upper two floors for ideal locations to limit disruptive path of travel and still serve seismic resisting capabilities. In determining the likely type of construction of certain elements, Yves and Beverly are invaluable because they know common construction practices to Haiti. The three of us spend all day there measuring the school. Two of us both record dimensions just in case one of us forgets something and can compare with the other. I fill my notebook with hand drawn floor plans, elevations, details and notes along with many pictures.
We have a crazy delicious lunch of more traditional Haitian food. It’s a smorgasbord of options and I try a little of everything: rice, beans, chicken, beef, fish, pasta and cheese (Yves calls this Haitian lasagna). The lasagna may have been the best thing, but everything was amazing. I washed it all down with a cold glass of fresh squeezed papaya juice — delish!
All day there are gentlemen playing dominoes in the back yard area of the school. Occasionally I hear an uproar and commotion come from the game. I want to play. I have also seen clothespins pinned to players’ necks and ears playing dominoes, very amusing. I ask Yves and he tells me some people play that every time you lose you must put a clothespin on. I like this rule. I want to implement it next time I play back home.
February 19, 2015 – Thursday morning
Yesterday we were in the MI office all day, modeling the existing building in ETABS, understanding the school building material components, creating a load takeoff and finding seismic masses. Beverly works on creating the as-built drawings of the school in CAD. Sometimes it’s tough to determine existing building materials and makeup, but we believe we have a very good idea of the system based on typical construction. I work on modeling just one of the buildings, the wing closest to the street. The back wing will be almost identical except it has a lower basement.
We had Haitian pizza yesterday for lunch. The cheese used is a mystery. It’s creamy and heavy. I couldn’t tell if it was the most scrumptious or most gross pizza I have ever had. I had to limit myself to only two pieces, but I kinda want some right now.
February 20, 2015 – Friday morning
I really wish I knew either French or Haitian Creole; I find the knowledge of even speaking and understanding a small amount of conversation pieces is very pleasurable. I knew little if any French or Haitian Creole before my trip to Haiti. I also think it is very respectable to know the basic phrases when traveling to countries with different languages including, “please, thank you, hello” and my favorite, “nice to meet you,” which is anshante in French. I told myself I would try to learn a word or two a day. A few I picked up:
Na we – see you later
Pistache – peanuts or pistache grille – grilled peanuts (delicious!)
Kampa – type of Haitian music, most popular
Un lote – one more
Yesterday was still more modeling and marking up of drawings. Last night Kit had a BBQ. We had fried plantains, breadfruit, BBQ goat and picklese. Picklese (pikliz) is like a Haitian salsa: pickled cabbage, carrots and peppers. It’s very good, can be hot, goes great with plaintains and breadfruit. Think that was my first time having goat. Goat = delicious.
February 21, 2015 – Saturday Morning
Yesterday we planned on meeting with the school superintendent to go over our work and propose ideas for any input he would have. Unfortunately plans changed and we weren’t able to meet with him. I also missed getting to the school to see the kids in school, although we drove by the school multiple times because the office is very close and do get to see school in session. They students all wear blue uniforms, pretty sharp. Sometimes classes are overflowing and kids have to stand outside of the rooms during class.
Kit and I returned to the school on Friday afternoon to double check a couple assumptions and verify some detailing issues to make sure our seismic strengthening locations work.
Last night we went to Le Perroquet restaurant, which is also a small hotel. The building is really cool old stone. We went there previously during the week and they invited us back saying they were going to get a band to come for us on Friday. The music was awesome, reggae style. Played some Bob Marley in English and some songs in Haitian. The really cool part was that Yves came to sing as well. He is a singer in a kampa band, which is most popular type of music in Haiti and brought some of his band mates to play with him. It was really neat to see him perform and hear kampa music, especially because I missed the carnival.
There were two grocery stores that I went to in Petion Ville, both of them designed by Miyamoto. When you go in, you see a Miyamoto plaque inside, literally placed one foot in plain sight from the entrance. The owners want to make it known that their building is safe and because Miyamoto has such a huge reputation here, many of them put a plaque on display to show it’s safe there.
February 23, 2015 – Monday night
As I get into a cab leaving Lindbergh Field last night, I stop myself from saying “merci” to the driver. I wouldn’t think that being gone for just a week would leave me with a culture shock when I come back home. I got used to the slower pace of life compared to the hustle bustle of Southern California, in addition to the extreme standard of living difference.
Traveling to Haiti was refreshing, motivating, heartwarming…what other words can I express to see people from all over the world working together for humanity? Beverly and Yves from Haiti, Sabine from South Africa, Kit from the States/Japan and myself from the States. It was a privilege to be a part of this and experience some good that isn’t heard about often.
There was much more to see and experience in Haiti; I will have to return. I would have liked to see the first Miyamoto Relief project done, the Lycee Nationale de Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince. The partnership and involvement between the community and the government/school for that project was very impressive. I will have to return to see this project and the new retrofit on the Petion Ville school.
I feel honored and privileged to work on a project like this and look forward to continue working on the design of the school retrofit. Hopefully, with the support of others, what we do here can save the lives of many children. Let’s make the world a better place.