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Haiti Takes Major Step toward Earthquake Resilience, with Help from UB's MCEER

More than 200 Haitians Attend Seminar on Earthquake Engineering

Release Date: May 27, 2010

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More than 200 people participated in an earthquake engineering seminar in Port-au-Prince. UB's Andre Filiatrault is center; Doctoral student Pierre Fouche is standing, far right, in green and gray striped shirt.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Last weekend at a university campus in Port-au-Prince, where not a single building withstood the January earthquake, more than 200 Haitian engineers, architects and other professionals gathered in tents in temperatures hovering near 100 degrees F to begin learning the principles of earthquake-resistant design.

From May 20-22, the University at Buffalo's MCEER and Universitè Quisqueya, (UniQ) held their first jointly sponsored Earthquake Engineering Educational Seminar.

The seminar was a result of a memorandum of understanding signed between UB's MCEER (formerly the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research) and UniQ to bring MCEER's earthquake engineering expertise to the professional and student engineering communities in Haiti so they can learn fundamental earthquake engineering principles needed to retrofit damaged facilities and design new construction.

The response to this first seminar was overwhelming, the organizers said.

"We expected between 60 and 70 attendees and we got 215," says Andre Filiatrault, PhD, MCEER director and UB professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, who ran the seminar.

"The attitude of the engineers was extremely positive," he says. "They realize that they need to become proficient in this type of engineering and there is a thirst to learn."

Within eight days of the Jan. 12 earthquake, MCEER's Filiatrault had assembled and deployed the first team of structural engineers to Haiti to conduct building safety inspections at the request of the United Nations. When the team returned to the U.S., they knew more needed to be done.

The MCEER and UniQ partnership will extend for at least three years, and is designed to help Haiti establish its own community of earthquake engineers to mitigate earthquake-induced damage to its buildings. Each seminar will provide credit toward a master's of earthquake engineering degree that UniQ is developing with MCEER's support.

Because this first seminar proved so popular, the sponsors divided the group into two, with Filiatrault teaching one half and Pierre Fouché, a Haitian native and UB doctoral candidate in earthquake engineering, teaching the other half. Sofia Tangalos, MCEER education and outreach officer and information service director, who had lived in Haiti as a child, provided on-site organizational support.

The seminar was conducted completely in French.

"This is the best thing that we can do for Haiti," says Filiatrault, "to start educating the architects and engineers about the fundamental notions of earthquake engineering so that they can avoid past mistakes."

After an introduction by Fouché regarding the seismology and seismicity of Haiti, the seminar focused on principles of earthquake-resistant design and on the ATC-20 (Applied Technical Council) Rapid Building Assessment Methodology.

"A key advantage of the seminar was its emphasis on field studies as well as classroom-type instruction," Filiatrault says.

During the seminar, all attendees participated in field assessments of earthquake-damaged buildings in Port-au-Prince to see first-hand the impacts of earthquakes on structures lacking the necessary earthquake engineering detailing. They learned how to conduct damage assessments on uninspected structures throughout Port-au-Prince.

"We gave participants a firm grounding in the concepts of earthquake engineering and some really practical information on how to build better buildings even without making detailed calculations," Filiatrault says. "We showed them the differences between what makes a building safe or unsafe. When they begin to apply even just those principles to their engineering and architectural practices, it will make a tremendous difference."

In his presentation, Filiatrault used Chile's 1960 earthquake as a parallel example.

"I wanted to highlight the fact that Haitian engineers are not alone and that what they are going through has been experienced by other countries," he says. "That 1960 earthquake in Chile caused tremendous suffering and loss of life and it served as a turning point where things started to change. In the same way, I told them, the disaster that occurred on Jan. 12, 2010, can also bring a change in paradigm for Haiti."

Subsequent seminars will focus on the specific calculations that are required to construct safe buildings, a segment that is largely missing from current engineering curricula in Haiti.

The next seminar will last for five days and will take place in early September. Additional faculty from other U.S. engineering schools will be involved.

"The goal is to develop with UniQ an earthquake engineering curriculum, the first in Haiti and in the francophone region of the West Indies, including the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe," notes MCEER's Tangalos. "There is much that needs to be learned not just in the lack of building codes but also in the understanding of the proper building materials and construction methods."

The MCEER-UniQ partnership will also develop longer-term educational programs on seismic design of buildings with a focus on adapted techniques for reconstruction, and promote academic exchange and cooperation over the next three years.

Founded in 1988 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the University of Quisqueya (UniQ) is a private institution composed of six academic units: Agriculture and Environment, Management and Economics, Engineering and Architecture, Law, Education and Health. Nearly 2,000 full-time students currently attend UniQ. Due to its excellent reputation in the system of higher education in Haiti, its undergraduate and master's degrees are recognized abroad.

Founded in 1986, MCEER, headquartered at the University at Buffalo, is a national center of excellence in advanced technology applications dedicated to reducing losses from earthquakes and other hazards, and to improving disaster resilience. One of three such centers in the nation established by the National Science Foundation, MCEER has been funded principally over the past two decades with more than $67 million from NSF, more than $47 million from the State of New York and more than $34 million from the Federal Highway Administration. Additional support comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other state governments, academic institutions, foreign governments and private industry.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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Ellen Goldbaum
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