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UB Engineer Leads AIDG-MCEER Mission to Meet "Dire" Need for French-Speaking Engineers in Haiti

Hospitals and port facilities will be assessed first to determine the safety of structures left standing

Release Date: January 21, 2010

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UB's Andre Filiatrault is leading a team of French-speaking structural engineers to Haiti, where they will assess the safety of building that have been left standing.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The powerful aftershock that hit the already devastated city of Port au Prince on Jan. 20 has only intensified Haiti's need for French-speaking structural engineers who can immediately determine which of the structures left standing may still pose a threat to human safety.

One of the first such missions has now begun, led by Andre Filiatrault, PhD, University at Buffalo professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), headquartered at UB. Filiatrault is working in partnership with Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), a national organization that helps provide developing countries with affordable renewable energy, sanitation and clean water.

Filiatrault is leaving the U.S. today (Jan. 21) with a team of 10 architects and engineers from U.S. educational institutions and private engineering firms. Their mission is to determine which of Haiti's most critical structures -- particularly its hospitals and ports -- are safe to enter, and which pose a danger.

"We are going to Haiti at a time when the need for skilled, French-speaking engineers is dire," says Filiatrault. "A key piece of the recovery process depends on assessing the physical safety of critical infrastructure."

Filiatrault notes that while MCEER has conducted numerous reconnaissance missions since its inception in 1986, this AIDG-MCEER Haiti Earthquake Engineering Relief Mission is the first direct relief mission in which MCEER has been involved; MCEER's primary focus is conducting multidisciplinary, multi-hazard research and education.

"The sole purpose of these missions is humanitarian, to ensure the safety and welfare of Haitian citizens," he says. "We are taking the knowledge of earthquake engineers at MCEER, UB and in the engineering profession at large, and applying it at a time when it is most urgently needed."

On Jan. 15, Filiatrault and his colleagues began an intensive effort to identify and screen French-speaking civil and structural engineers willing to travel to Haiti in the coming days and weeks to perform inspections of key buildings.

After reaching out to more than 3,000 MCEER constituents in the U.S. and Canada earthquake engineering community, Filiatrault and MCEER colleagues received an overwhelming response; more than 150 French-speaking engineers were willing and able to go.

Over the weekend, MCEER and AIDG put together the initial team; of its 10 members, at least three are native Haitian engineers, who also speak Creole, the official language of Haiti.

Travel arrangements are being coordinated by MCEER and UB staff working with AIDG, the United Nations Development Programme, Food for Health and other international relief agencies working in Haiti.

Additional teams may depart in the coming weeks as well.

Once in Haiti, the engineers will provide recommendations for tagging buildings as either safe or unsafe, according to the tagging methodology that follows the U.S.-based Applied Technical Council's ATC-20 Post-Earthquake Safety Evaluation of Buildings.

Filiatrault said that in the U.S. such inspections are typically performed by government agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

MCEER has translated into French the signage that team members will take with them to Haiti, signage that describes whether or not a building is safe to enter.

"In Haiti, the damage the country has sustained to its infrastructure and to its population is so extensive that it is largely up to the international community to conduct these inspections," he says. "Once we have assessed the safety of the most critical structures, then those facilities that are deemed safe can be fully utilized for relief efforts, in particular hospitals, food storage and distribution centers and ports."

He says that Haiti's ports -- which sustained major damage -- are particularly critical to the nation's economic recovery. A pioneering experiment on the ability of port container cranes to withstand damage from earthquakes was conducted recently in UB's Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory by Reginald DesRoches of Georgia Tech, one of the AIDG-MCEER team members traveling to Haiti.

MCEER has provided each team member with information on preparing post-disaster reconnaissance kits, which must include supplies of water and water purification tablets, steel-toe shoes, dust masks, sleeping bags and first aid kits, among many other items. The center also is providing each team member with information on safety, health and security concerns.

"We are extraordinarily sensitive to the fact that we are going into a situation where people are desperate," says Filiatrault. "Our purpose is to provide the country with our expertise as efficiently as we can so that Haiti's recovery effort can proceed as rapidly as possible."

Donations for this mission are being accepted through MCEER's Web site at http://mceer.buffalo.edu.

Founded in 1986, MCEER, the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, headquartered at the University at Buffalo, is a national center of excellence in advanced technology applications dedicated to reducing losses from earthquake and other hazards nationwide. 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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goldbaum@buffalo.edu
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