2010 January 28 Thursday
Shoddy Construction Caused Haiti Death Toll

Lots of people built lots of structures with bad designs.

The audience at last Tuesday’s UC Berkeley lecture given by Eduardo Fierro, one of the first U.S. earthquake engineers to visit post-quake Haiti, collectively cringed as Fierro showed slide after slide of haphazard columns, brittle frames, and slipshod rods and joints. “This was not an earthquake disaster,” Fierro said. “[This] was caused by people that didn’t know how to use codes, that built things in bad shape. These were the people that caused the tragedy.”

The international aid agencies and developed world governments ought to spend a substantial portion of their reconstruction funds on architectural engineers and building construction inspectors to make sure the new buildings can withstand the next earthquake. Take over the building inspection function of the Haiti government and run it smartly and without corruption.

This is consistent with a previous post:

"Porte-au-Prince is probably one of the worst constructed cities in the world, and even the presidential palace collapsed," said Bilham. "An earthquake near a major city on one of several faults bounding the edge of the Caribbean Plate is one that many of us were expecting sooner or later."

With a population over 9 million and a population growth rate of 1.838% even if Haiti has lost as many as 250,000 people the population will be above 9 million once again by the end of 2011.

With a per capita GDP of $1,300 is it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Along with architectural engineers and building inspectors Haiti also needs free widely available birth control and family planning counselors.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 January 28 10:21 PM  Chaotic Regions

Stephen said at January 29, 2010 12:04 AM:

You mean market forces didn't lead to the creation of safer buildings than government regulation?

Winston Smith said at January 29, 2010 12:33 AM:

Stephen, the market has just spoken. Now the buildings will be rebuilt to a higher code. Thus, the market works.

A Gentle,Bearded Left-Winger. said at January 29, 2010 2:12 AM:

I doubt if any such thing as 'building codes' ever existed in Haiti.
Probably self-taught me (using inferior concrete) just built what they liked where they liked on a purely ad-hoc basis.
Incidentally, I was surprised the death-toll was so high.I would have thought that the weight of a tin roof and hardboard walls of the type of shack most Haitains seem to live in would be very insubstantial.
Perhaps its the higher class of Haitian who lived in a 'brick' house who was wiped out.

mrm said at January 29, 2010 6:19 AM:

Google "Paul SHirley". He's a former NBA player who in a much gruffer way said what is stated above. It is sad but true.California, Japan and Seattle have 7.0 earthquakes and death tolls do not approach even 1,000.

Bob Badour said at January 29, 2010 7:25 AM:


A corrupt market is not free.

Rohan Swee said at January 29, 2010 8:07 AM:

Winston Smith: Stephen, the market has just spoken. Now the buildings will be rebuilt to a higher code. Thus, the market works.

Ah, True Believers. If I were you I'd wait 'til the evidence was in and I could confidently write "...the buildings have been built to a higher code, thus the market works", before making claims about the "market working" in Haiti.

Anyway, bollocks. The "market" doesn't even work like that in places where the market works as well as it can this side of Utopia. There isn't a place on earth where prudent building codes are established and maintained by "the market". They require, as necessary but not sufficient conditions, enforceable criminal codes and yes, some level of inspection and regulation bureaucracy. The "sufficient" part isn't "the market" but the tacit common moral culture and high-enough levels of social capital that "building codes" are not just a set of instructions for contractors to locate the right official to bribe. Under these necessary (non- or extra-market) conditions, the de jure side of life is still required but won't be overburdened with tasks that are out of its (and "the market's") purview, and it can efficiently focus on its proper, narrow task: occasionally hanging a miscreant or two pour encourager les autres.

So, WS, you honestly believe that "the market" will ensure that all the new buildings put up henceforth in Haiti will conform to significantly higher standards of earthquake- and hurricane-proofing? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. (I admit utopians in all their sparkling diversity - Marxists, Randians, etc. - do add a measure of mirth to life. Too bad they're prone to being so damned destructive.)

Bob - no market, or any human construct, is free of corruption. It's a never-ending battle to keep the corruption to the humanly possible minimum. It is no more possible to have a market that is capable of rooting out malfeasance by strictly internal means, than it is to institute a government that will restrict its own natural tendencies toward becoming Leviathan, without more or less aggressive pushback from eternally vigilant citizens.

Bob Badour said at January 29, 2010 8:44 AM:


I don't know whether you expect me to disagree. You said basically what I said--only using more words.

I think you will agree a huge difference exists between a functioning market where some individuals seek to use corruption for personal advantage and a market principally characterized by corruption.

Luthor Rex said at January 29, 2010 2:35 PM:

One of the problems with talking about "capitalism" is that so few people actually understand what it is. Sure most people will say "it's a free market" but only a few who have really researched the issue will say that capitalism cannot function without the Rule of Law and human rights (among other things). These systems are really all interlinked and form "modern democracy" (for lack of a better term). What I am trying to argue here is that a capitalist market is only ONE PART of a larger functioning civilization that REQUIRES other functioning parts. To make a (perhaps poor) analogy: human rights is the heart, capitalism is the lungs, and the Rule of Law is the brain. These systems don't function without each other, or at least they don't function well unless you hook them up to life support.

As for Haiti... did they have a capitalist system? I sure don't know, I've never read much about the country. Reports seem to indicate that they had a very corrupt government, which would remove "Rule of Law" from one part of a functioning capitalist society.

Yes, I know there are anarchist-capitalists out there, but my understanding is that they are not usually considered credible.

Bob Badour said at January 29, 2010 4:18 PM:

Luthor Rex,

While I like your analogy to bodily systems, I find some of the specifics misguided.

Rule of Law is the skeleton or whatever gives the body structure allowing for predictable outcomes.

The Free Market is the nervous system--all the distributed decision makers, actors and reactors like the brain, spinal column, ganglia etc.

Capital or industry is the musculature that drives effort and movement.

Public Goods are the other organs like the liver, kidney, vasculature, lymphatic system etc. All the other systems are better for having them; even if none of the other systems on its own would deliver them.

Randall Parker said at January 29, 2010 7:19 PM:

The unanswered question: How much did incompetence versus corruption contribute to the shoddy construction. I get the sense from the article above that incompetence played a big role.

Engineer-Poet said at January 29, 2010 8:01 PM:

Buildings such as nursing homes fell down in the quake.  These are not the kinds of buildings made ad-hoc by individuals eyeballing what looks right.  On the other hand, if memory serves the fault which let go was only discovered about 10 years ago, and much of the Port au Prince building stock was probably too old to benefit from any resulting building code updates.

no i don't said at January 30, 2010 4:26 PM:

"I doubt if any such thing as 'building codes' ever existed in Haiti."

Are you for real?? Let us not forget that it was an EARTHQUAKE that hit Haiti; quite a strong one too. Oh, but I forgot that in the U.S. buildings don't collapse from earthquakes, but instead from planes who sink into their high floors, -wings and all- as if made of butter. And near those buildings, still there are the other kind of buildings that tend to collapse because of...hmmm, because of nothing at all. So much for U.S. "building codes"...

Nevertheless, both dissasters were terribly sad; very, very sad and tragic, so I'd like to once again pay my sincerest respect and regard for the victims in both countries. Sincerest respect and regard.

no i don't said at January 30, 2010 4:49 PM:

"The unanswered question: How much did incompetence versus corruption contribute to the shoddy construction. I get the sense from the article above that incompetence played a big role." I think I will have to agree Randall; perhaps for both 1/12/10 and 9/11/01, because as I'm not a physicist I wouldn't know if planes hit harder than 7.0 earthquakes...

What I am sure of, however, is that -with the technologies we have today- no building should collapse for either reason.

Again, sincerest respect for the victims in both countries for perhaps similar corruption and incompetence.

Jerry Martinson said at February 1, 2010 11:45 PM:

While it's true that Haiti is a cesspool of corruption and the building practices there suck, I cringe at the implication in the press after every major quake with a high death toll that "this cannot happen here". America (yes even in California) isn't immune to poor seismic construction. California in particular has lots of "dingbats" buildings where 2-3 story apartments are constructed on top of a parking space and supported by flimsy stilts. These buildings have failed and will fail again in strong ground motion, needlessly killing many people. And there are also a lot of tilt-up buildings with substantial daytime occupancy. These have traditionally failed very poorly in earthquakes and while there have been many retrofits, even retrofitted tilt-ups have failed. A lot of these tilt-ups are built on poorly consolidated mud. The bay area hasn't had strong ground motion since 1906. 1989 was too deep and far away (closer to Santa Cruz than to San Jose) to be a real of the earthquake worthiness of the structures in the south and east bay. There exists many blind thrust faults under many areas. It's a matter of time before we learn how badly screwed we really are.

Jerry Martinson said at February 2, 2010 12:04 AM:

Here's an article discussing how vulnerable Silicon Valley is to an earthquake due to tilt-ups:


I can tell you first hand that there are hundreds of high-tech companies with substantial daytime occupancy in these types of buildings and few have been comprehensively upgraded.

We're not a whole lot better than the 3rd world.

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