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Safety Hits Home

Safety Hits HomeGaby Rigaud, a geotechnical engineer and native of Haiti, assesses post-earthquake damage in her home country.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.24.10] Haitian-native and geotechnical engineer Gabrielle Rigaud heard about the earthquake in her home country via Facebook. The master's student engineer had spent the majority of January 12, 2010 asleep at home with what would become the flu. She woke up in the early evening to the news about the destruction the 7.0 magnitude quake had caused.

"I got on Facebook and all of my friends were like 'Oh my god. I'm looking for my mom. I'm looking for my dad.' and I'm thinking maybe a bomb dropped or something," says Gaby. "I absolutely hate Facebook, but that's the only time that I didn't."

Without a TV, Gaby spent the evening online learning about the quake via Google searches and making connections for friends and relatives via the Internet. Most of Gaby's family had emigrated from Haiti many years ago, and she herself hadn't been back to the country since 1999; but she still knew of many people directly affected by the disaster. "You still worried about friends' families and friends' friends. Even if the person I was friends with was in Canada, and I know they're OK-I know their sister is in Haiti," says Gaby.

"After that, I went into a daze for four days; I couldn't function very well," she says, adding that she spent most days looking online to see how she could help.

An opportunity to help arrived via an e-mail from the Tufts' Engineers Without Borders chapter on behalf of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that helps communities get affordable and environmentally sound access to electricity, sanitation and clean water. AIDG put out a call for French- or Creole-speaking engineers to fly down to the region with the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) to assess damage to Haiti's infrastructure.

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A 10-member team led by the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, including Gabrielle Rigaud, EG'10 (center) assembles in Haiti to assess damage caused by a 7.0 earthquake.

"I e-mailed my resume to them and it took about three days before somebody called me," says Gaby, a native French speaker.

Gaby became part of a 10-member engineer team, led by MCEER's Director, Andre Filiatrault, that arrived in the earthquake-ravaged country. Flying into Santo Domingo, the team expected a pick up from the United Nations; but not surprisingly, says Gaby, the intergovernmental agency was in disarray. "They lost a lot of their staff in one of the collapses," she says.

Fortunately, one of the team's four Haitian engineers, Jean-Philippe Simon, was able to charter a cargo plane from a cousin's company, Tortug'air, which flew them directly into Port-au-Prince where a tented base camp of volunteers was assembling.

At first, the base camp grounds near the UN were too chaotic for the team to set up their tents. They were offered shelter by Patrick Moynihan, the deacon of Louverture Cleary School, a local, Catholic-affiliated grade school. Since the earthquake, Moynihan's students had been sleeping on the school grounds outside the building, fearing an aftershock might collapse the structure, Gaby says. The engineers' first task was therefore assessing the safety of the building that they would spend their first nights in. "They all moved back into the school buildings because they realized if the engineers are sleeping inside the buildings it must be safe," Gaby says.

For the next seven days, Gaby and the MCEER team examined more than 100 buildings in the area, using the Applied Technology Council's rapid evaluation safety assessment form, or ATC-20.

"We had a crash course in the ATC-20 techniques," says Gaby. "First thing you do is make sure that your primary building elements--columns and beams--are intact and you have a good sense that they're actually supporting the building before you even go inside. If it's not good outside, most likely it's not good inside," says Gaby. The information was then uploaded to an FTP site where MCEER could coordinate the information for the research teams to follow and thereby avoid duplicating efforts.

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A collapsed building in Haiti's capitol city of Port-au-Prince, the result of poor construction materials.  

"A lot of the buildings that collapsed, there were a lot of fractures along the bricks, and the mortar didn't stick. The cement quality is really poor," she says, adding poor concrete building materials have a telltale white coloring.

"You don't have to be an expert to tell why those buildings collapsed-all the bricks and all the cinderblocks, they're all white. It's more sand than anything cohesive keeping the aggregate together," she says, adding that most concrete blocks they examined weighed less than half of concrete blocks made in the United States.

And the collapse didn't just occur in shantytowns where people couldn't afford proper building materials, she says. One street over from the suburban street she grew up on, Gaby approximated that only one in ten houses remained standing.

"The fact is that building material in Haiti pretty much degraded from 10 years ago." The school Gaby attended similarly collapsed because of shoddy construction materials. Getting Haitian schools back online is the first thing that Gaby says she would like to do upon completing her master's degree in the spring.

The destruction of the schools is perhaps the most tragic, says Gaby. "Usually there'd be bad things happening in Haiti: there'd be hurricanes, there'd be political drama, but the kids were never at home, sitting with all of that in their heads thinking 'Oh my God, my life is over.' Things always moved along. But now there're no schools; so the kids are at home, their parents are at home. You have more time to think about how bad your situation is."

Long before the earthquake, she says she had thought of starting a small Haitian engineering consulting firm with other friends who are architects and engineers. The timetable to start a new venture in Haiti has been pushed up in her life plans, says Gaby.

"I think now there's momentum and people are really interested in going back because at least there'll be projects going out and requests for bids even for a small group of people who can do a small project and still feel accomplished."

In addition, Gaby said her MCEER team is looking to continue their work in Haiti by assisting with training of engineers who will begin to rebuild the country. "People in Haiti who we call engineers-they're not necessarily people who have a degree in engineering," she says. "We want to put some sort of criteria in place so that the people who are actually trained to be engineers will come to Haiti and get the extra training that they need."

Story by Julia C. Keller, Communications Manager, School of Engineering

Photos courtesy of Gaby Rigaud

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Julia Keller
T: 617.627.5733
E: j.keller@tufts.edu