Op-Ed: We Failed Haiti Once

The earthquake-ravaged country will be rebuilt; let's get it right this time

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

I found it hard to watch the endless video from Haiti — images of motionless hands and feet extending outside the rubble, whole communities destroyed in just a few moments of shaking.

My family responded like so many others. We collected, contributed, talked about our own good fortune and prayed for those living through hell.

When I got back to my office at the university, I wondered what we, as an engineering discipline, should be doing. Think about how the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis started a full-scale national discussion on the state of aging, weak U.S. infrastructure. Professional societies stepped in and engineering experts reached out to educate the public on the potential dangers inherent in neglecting these systems. After that wake-up call people seem to understand the serious nature of a report issued last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave our nation's overall infrastructure a staggeringly poor grade of “D.”

So we have our own work to do. But even prior to the earthquake, the challenges in Haiti were deep and severe. With 80 percent of the estimated nine million Haitians living below the poverty line, diseases like AIDS, malaria, typhoid and hepatitis run rampant. The education system is so dismal only half of the population can read or write. The average life span for a Haitian is a mere 60 years.

Traditional housing for most Haitian families amounts to little more than found objects cobbled together. Poverty also feeds political instability, so the country's infrastructure was in shambles well before the earthquake.

The sad reality in post-earthquake Haiti is that with so many bodies buried inside buildings, never to be unearthed, we may never know the full death toll. To compound the misery, the numbers of homeless exceed 1.5 million and approximately one-third of the entire population has been left without water, energy or safety.

Natural disasters occur pretty regularly around the world. Here in our own country, it took one collapsing bridge to spark a national investigation into our engineering and maintenance practices. How will we respond now with so many suffering in a collapsed country?

First, engineering needs to increase the emphasis on disaster prevention as a core element of the discipline. Second, new construction technologies must be created and widely disseminated so that even low-cost housing can be safer. Third, we must develop the ability to rapidly assemble temporary cities that can be home to the millions displaced by natural disasters — in the immediate aftermath and during the long rebuilding process. Finally, we must have the logistics and workforce support in place and ready to save lives that are so often lost in the critical days following these disasters.

Engineers can't solve all of Haiti's problems, but it's only a matter of time before a disaster of this scale occurs again somewhere on the planet. We must begin developing the solutions that can help mitigate the human suffering and the destruction of infrastructure delivered by nature (and in some cases, man).

Haiti will be rebuilt — I just hope we get it right this time.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .