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After Haiti’s last earthquake, aid organizations struggled to help rebuild. Can they do better now?

It’s not as sexy as installing new, high-design prototypes to resist future disasters, but sometimes the best option is just repairing and reenforcing existing structures.

After Haiti’s last earthquake, aid organizations struggled to help rebuild. Can they do better now?
Build Change engineer Alexandria at work in Haiti in 2016. [Photo: Courtesy Build Change]

On a trip to Haiti in 2013, three years after the massive earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people and destroyed at least 100,000 buildings, Jake Johnston, a researcher at the nonprofit Center for Economic and Policy Research, visited a neighborhood of model homes that had been built in the wake of the destruction. International architects had submitted designs in a competition; dozens of different model homes were built, with the intent to replicate them in other neighborhoods. But they sat empty and were never used to build more.

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“Right across the street from all these abandoned model homes, collecting dust and trash, was a multistory apartment building that had been built by the government in 2004 or 2003, and was full of residents,” Johnston says. The apartment complex had survived the earthquake, and could have possibly served as a model for rebuilding itself. But donors chose instead to pay for new designs that went unused.

It was one small example of the way that some of the funding that poured into the country after the earthquake—$13.5 billion in total—was spent in questionable ways on housing. In a USAID project boosted by Bill Clinton as part of a “Build Back Better” campaign, 15,000 new homes were planned near a new industrial park. Building costs ballooned to more than triple the original estimate, and fewer than 1,000 houses were actually built. “Then they were built using substandard concrete, so they didn’t even build earthquake-resistant homes,” says Johnston. (USAID later suspended its relationships with the contractors over the faulty construction.)

The Red Cross, which raised half a billion dollars for its relief work in Haiti, planned to build hundreds of new homes in one neighborhood, but had to abandon the project after challenges securing land. For more than a year after the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people lived in tents, and when they were eventually forced to move, many went back to their old homes, which still hadn’t been safely repaired.

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A builder-training center set up by Build Change to train local builders in resilient construction practices. [Photo: Courtesy Build Change]
The latest earthquake in Haiti, which hit a different part of the country, may have damaged or destroyed another 100,000 buildings. The latest round of rebuilding can take lessons from what happened a decade ago, nonprofit experts say. Haiti also needs to figure out how to take the next step: How can every building in the country become more resilient, so more lives and homes aren’t lost when the next earthquake or hurricane inevitably happens?

“It is completely possible to build and strengthen houses to withstand earthquakes, windstorms, and other hazards, and prevent such a disaster,” says Elizabeth Hausler, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Build Change. “It’s not the earthquake that kills people, it’s the collapse of a poorly built structure—[a] manmade problem. It just takes the right combination of people and political will, financing, and technology to solve it.”

In Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, many people build their own homes, with cheap materials. Builders also may cut corners to save money—mixing too much water into concrete, for example, which weakens it, or leaving out a metal frame that can help hold a building together during an earthquake.

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But even poorly-built homes can often be repaired or retrofitted to become resilient. After the 2010 earthquake, Build Change launched a program that helped retrofit homes for thousands of families. “Before the 2010 earthquake, I think the relief community thought this was impossible,” says Hausler. “And after the 2010 earthquakes, we and our partners basically showed the world that you can strengthen these existing damaged buildings to withstand the next event.” (It’s worth noting that because the latest earthquake happened in a different area, most of the buildings that were repaired likely weren’t affected by it.) Miyamoto International, an engineering company that trained thousands of Haitian builders in safer construction and repairs, says that in many cases, houses can be repaired—and that’s much less expensive than demolition and reconstruction.

Donors don’t always want to pay for repairs. “Repairing stuff isn’t sexy,” says Johnston. “What people wanted to do was build new houses.” After the 2010 earthquake, a huge amount of money—$500 million—also went to temporary shelters. Some portion of that money could have been better spent on repairs, so people could safely return to their existing homes. Hausler hopes that this time, with proof from the last earthquake that retrofitting homes can work, there will be more support for it.

A home that was strengthened with technical assistance from Build Change as part of the LAMIKA housing project. [Photo: Courtesy Build Change]
When new homes need to built, it’s critical to work with local partners, says Alexandria Lafci, cofounder of New Story, a nonprofit that launched in Haiti in 2015 after witnessing the slow pace of rebuilding. “There’s always local talent, local leadership, and if you take the time to invest in finding them and working with them, you will go much further, much faster,” she says.

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The nonprofit worked with a local partner that hires local builders and can build a new house for $6,000 or $7,000, as compared to the $33,000 per house that USAID spent when working with international contractors. (In an unusual operating model, 100% of individual donations to New Story also go directly to home construction; larger donors separately fund administrative costs.) To date, the nonprofit has funded the construction of 1,050 new disaster-resilient homes in Haiti. Most of the homes are near Port au Prince, where the 2010 earthquake caused the most damage, but around 200 are in the southern part of the country, closer to the latest epicenter. Because of the current chaos in the country, the organization hasn’t yet confirmed whether there was any damage.

An even bigger challenge will be pushing for resilience beyond the areas immediately affected by the latest earthquake. After the 2010 quake, “we didn’t see funding really extending to other parts of the country for folks to strengthen their homes,” says Hausler. More homeowners want to make changes now, she says; prior to 2010, there was less awareness that earthquakes were a major threat in the area. (Many houses were built with heavy roofs, making them more resilient in hurricanes, but more likely to collapse in earthquakes.) But even though the national building code was updated, it hasn’t been enforced. The government, reeling after the assassination of the president in July, isn’t in a strong position to tackle the problem.

“There’s a bigger, longer-term issue here, which is that you need a government that is strong enough, capable enough, legitimate enough, to actually have and enforce standards,” says Johnston. “That is a much longer-term thing. “In the end, if you don’t have an authority that has that ability, how can you enforce those codes?”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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