Infrastructure and the Haitian Tragedy

Written by 

As events unfold in Haiti, our audience has been watching the news, and in many cases contributing to or assisting directly in the recovery.  As the facilities and infrastructure person, the story has certainly caught my attention, not only because of the humanitarian aspects, but also because of the role that poor engineering played in creating it.

While this is a great human tragedy, it is caused by (and will continue to be hampered by) infrastructure failures first and foremost.  Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, as reported by every news outlet covering this crisis.  This manifests itself in their national infrastructure systems, which are equally poor and unable to survive an earthquake of this magnitude and its aftermath.

As mentioned in my first U.S. infrastructure article, U.S. Infrastructure – Obvious but Unnoticed, most Americans likely take our bridges, roads, rail systems, airports, and water and sewer piping for granted.  The situation in Haiti should not only make us appreciate our own infrastructure, but also be aware of how widespread the impacts of poor infrastructure can really be on an affected population.  The ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is loaded with “D’s” and “C’s” across every category I’ve written about so far.  However, we must keep in mind these grades are relative to our own construction codes, standards, funding, and future growth.

Without any scientific references or research, I’m convinced an equally strong earthquake in a U.S. city of a size similar to Port-Au-Prince would result in a tiny fraction of the human suffering that we are now witnessing in Haiti.  First, our seismic codes would require building designs better capable of withstanding the initial temblors.  Second, our building construction standards and inspection oversight would have required higher quality work-in-place, regardless of initial design.  Third, our water and sewer systems would have been robust enough, with redundancies, to continue to supply the population with potable water and carry away sewerage.  Fourth, our communications systems would have allowed better contact between potential victims and first-responders.  In the case of Haiti, all these factors are very much in play behind the scenes immediately, separate from the breadth of international aid that arrives on scene.

The unfortunate result of these infrastructure shortcomings was the large number of folks that were injured by the initial round of structural collapses.  Now, the international relief agencies are racing against time, before the more silent but equally serious health effects can take root….health effects that would certainly be mitigated by access to disinfected drinking water and intact sewers.  Sound infrastructure systems are a key life-line for any urban population, and the Haitian tragedy once again demonstrates that fact.  Our thoughts are with the Haitians during this crisis and recovery.

Andrew Kimos

Andrew Kimos completed the civil engineering programs at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (B.S. 1987) and the University of Illinois (M.S. 1992) and is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of Wisconsin. He served as a design engineer, construction project manager, facilities engineer, and executive leader in the Coast Guard for over 20 years. He worked as a regional airline pilot in the western U.S. before joining the team as Operations Channel Producer.

blog comments powered by Disqus