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From above, much of Port-au-Prince looks more like a great grey beach of crumbled concrete than the bustling port city of 2.8 million people that it once was and will be again. Entire city blocks have collapsed upon themselves, the streets that bisected them now filled with the rubble of people's homes and apartments. The shattered hospitals are in as much of need of help as the sick and wounded streaming toward them.

The offices of some international organizations - the people who usually help to rebuild after a disaster such as Tuesday's devastating earthquake - also were destroyed, and aid workers are among the missing and dead. There is no water or electricity, and the airport is only partly operational. Haitians may still be coming to grips with what hit them, but it's a relief worker's nightmare.

With as many as 45,000 people believed to be dead, it's hard to imagine that eventually life will return to something approaching normal in Port-au-Prince. With Haitians - angry at the slow delivery of aid - blocking the streets with piles of corpses, it seems unfathomable that the city's design and infrastructure may emerge stronger than they were in a city already rotting when the earth began to shake.

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But history tells us that Port-au-Prince will rebuild and recover, at least to its previous state. Perhaps even to something better than what existed, so long as the international community's attention doesn't wander from Haiti, as it has so often in the past.

Recent precedents are encouraging. The vast majority of the 3.3 million people made homeless by the 2005 earthquake in the Kashmir area of Pakistan have left their tent cities and moved into new, tremor-resistant homes. Tourists have returned to the beaches of Thailand and Indonesia after the tsunami that swamped the region on Dec. 26, 2004. And China's response to the massive earthquake that devastated swathes of Sichuan province in May, 2008, has become a source of national pride, with new attention being paid to the ways homes and particularly schools are built there.

In Sichuan, local officials came to regard the earthquake, which left about 90,000 people dead or missing, as an opportunity to fix what they saw as flaws in the original designs of their cities.

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, the tsunami is credited with helping bring about a peace agreement that ended nearly three decades of conflict. A year later in Kashmir, aid and friendship briefly flowed across a bitterly disputed border from India into Pakistan.


None of those places is quite so troubled as grindingly poor and endemically chaotic Haiti. Aid agencies say they expect to face a host of unique challenges when rebuilding the island, including looting, violence and official corruption.

But precisely because of its problems - as well as the trio of hurricanes that lashed Haiti last year - the country also has one of the world's larger communities of resident aid workers, bolstered now by an influx of crisis veterans who know all too well how to go about putting a splintered region back together.

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Organizations like the United Nations, the Red Cross and Médecins sans frontières (MSF) spent the first hours after the earthquake trying to make contact with their own missing employees and tallying up the damage done to resources on the ground. Then they set to work in a troubled country they already knew very personally.

For now, with aid money pouring in and heartbreaking images from Haiti dominating the international news, the focus is on emergency response: collecting the dead, healing the wounded and finding some kind of shelter for those who lost their homes. That will be the full-time task for the next couple of months, at least.

But the equally critical work of rebuilding the capital and the towns around it will begin just as the journalists are pulling out and donors thinking of opening their wallets for another cause.

"The reality is that this will take a long time to rebuild. This is not something that will take one or two years," says Alejandro Cedeno, a spokesman for the World Bank, which has announced a $100-million assistance package for short-term relief and dispatched a team of experts to look at the long-term needs. More than $268-million was pledged by various governments and organizations in the first 48 hours after the earthquake. The question, Mr. Cedeno says, is whether the outpouring will last as long as it takes Haiti to recover.

As always in such disasters - especially in the developing world - establishing access to clean water is the first priority after treating the wounded. With hundreds of thousands of people homeless and living in squalor because of the quake, the risk of diseases such as cholera and dysentery spreading through the water supply is a major worry. Even before the quake, barely half of Haitians had clean water and less than a third any sort of sanitation.

Next is emergency shelter, which in these early days comes in the form of a build-your-own kit that agencies hope to start distributing soon. Such kits include bare essentials: plywood for walls, corrugated metal for a roof and a simple toolbox.

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According to Mia Vukojevic, humanitarian-programs manager at Oxfam Canada, who worked in both Sri Lanka after the tsunami and Kashmir after the earthquake, there is usually plenty of aid money for the emergency relief but a shortfall when it comes to the long-term reconstruction projects. She says that, in 16 years as an aid worker, she has worked on only one crisis - the tsunami - that had its entire recovery fully funded. "We, the public, move on to the next emergency," she says.

That dynamic - lots of money in the early days, too little later on - has led in the past to bad decision-making by those tasked with distributing cash on the ground. "Some NGOs want to spend the money they have as quickly as possible," says Wayne DeJong, vice-president of international programs at Habitat for Humanity Canada and another veteran of the tsunami relief effort. "It's tempting to just buy prefabricated homes and ship them in."

You need to go slowly and you need to do your due diligence. Tom Grimmer, aid consultant

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is infamous on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East for sending housing materials in the wake of a 1995 earthquake that got stuck in the Byzantine Russian customs process. Years later, they remained unassembled, even though thousands of residents were still waiting for new homes they'd been promised.

This time, Habitat for Humanity's short-term plan is to hand out the do-it-yourself shelter kits, but longer term, Mr. DeJong says, there is an opportunity to help Haitians - especially those living in the devastated slums that surround Port-au-Prince - build more earthquake-resistant homes. "It's an opportunity, in some cases, to actually improve the housing in some areas," he explains. "The goal is not necessarily for it to look like it did."

But first, heavy machinery has to be brought in to demolish damaged structures and clear away the debris. Only then can the survey work be done, the materials ordered and the rebuilding commence. The biggest challenge - especially in the slums of Port-au-Prince where record-keeping was poor in the first place - is sorting out who owned what before the disaster.

"The task is enormous - beyond comprehension, really," Mr. DeJong says, adding that in 26 years in Haiti, his agency has helped to build roughly 2,000 homes. "That's really a drop in the bucket compared to the numbers we're facing now."

Simply rebuilding Haiti is one thing, reconstructing Haitian communities is another. Cameron Sinclair of the San Francisco-based Architects for Humanity argues that one big mistake aid organizations make when they arrive in disaster zones is that they offer "cookie-cutter solutions" - models that worked in the last crisis are applied to the latest one, often with unintended results.

Mr. Sinclair, who has overseen rebuilding projects after disasters as far-flung as the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, says that aid workers - arriving in a fleet of sports utility vehicles, with satellite phones and crates of bottled water not shared with the locals - often end up alienated from those they are trying to help.

People who have lost their homes and livelihoods usually welcome outside help. But they don't want to be cut out when their community is being reconstructed.

"The one-size-fits-all approach that comes with larger agencies is not only culturally inappropriate, but it can cause instability in the community," Mr. Sinclair says, adding that his organization - like Habitat for Humanity - hires only labour from the local community. "People may have lost everything in a disaster. But one thing they haven't lost is their dignity. … It's not just about the culture and legacy of the community; it's about them."

In the end, Haitians must decide what they want the rebuilt Port-au-Prince to look like. "If they tell you, 'We just want it back the way it was,' with some improved standards of construction, then that's what you should be doing," says John Van Nostrand, a Toronto architect worked on rebuilding Banda Aceh after the tsunami.

"But as soon as you're making [bigger]decisions … you're in trouble."

Haiti: Before and After

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Two years ago in China, the task looked similarly enormous. As with parts Port-au-Prince, rivers of rubble lay where multistorey buildings had once stood in Sichuan's Beichuan county, the location of the epicentre. The devastation was particularly wrenching because the dead included more than 19,000 children, crushed as their poorly built schools collapsed.

It's hard to imagine anything good coming out of such a tragedy, but the response to the earthquake saw notions such as charitable giving and civil society take root in southern China - as did a new attention to building standards.

"This earthquake disaster was something we'd never experienced," says Wu Weiwei, an official in the emergency response department in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. "We are rethinking everything, all aspects of the city design. We built new buildings to withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, especially schools and gyms which can be temporarily used as emergency centres."

Canadian consultant Tom Grimmer arrived in Sichuan four months after the earthquake, helping a European banking group rebuild schools in Mingshan county, an area some 100 kilometres south of epicentre that both sustained damaged and received a wakeup call about the need to build earthquake-proof structures. It took months, however, before any of the aid money pouring in reached Mingshan.

"They had a crying need for these schools to be rebuilt, but they weren't getting any attention, because they weren't the epicentre," Mr. Grimmer says.

"Look outside the places that are in the news. … You need to go slowly and you need to do your due diligence."

The truth about rebuilding a place like Port-au-Prince is that it often comes together in an ad hoc fashion, despite the efforts of the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs to oversee the big-picture relief mission.

"In every major disaster, you see a lot of duplication, a lot of waste, simply because there are so many actors wanting to do good," says Paul McPhun, Haiti operations manager for MSF.

His organization is still waiting for word on the fate of some of the 800 local and 30 international staff it had before the quake. He says MSF is planning to devote three months to simply dealing with the sick and injured from of the quake, as well as the regular cases from the traffic accidents and violence that ordinarily plague Haiti.

Only when the crisis subsides, can it and other organizations turn to the longer-term task of rebuilding a medical infrastructure he says has been almost annihilated. One MSF emergency-care centre was destroyed and two others were badly damaged by the tremor. Also lost was a centre catering to rape victims and one that housed the only emergency obstetrics unit in the country.

Rebuilding those facilities is one goal. Dealing with the poverty, violence and official corruption that have haunted Haiti for decades is another that's far beyond the capacities of MSF and one that will take a sustained effort by the international community alongside rebuilding the broken streets and buildings of Port-au-Prince.

"Everybody's interested in emergencies and natural disasters. They generate a lot of compassion, a lot of concern and the money flows in," Mr. McPhun says. "But the fundamental issues of Haiti are not related to the (earthquake or) the hurricanes. … The transition from it being a response to a natural disaster to a long-term project of reform and development is a much harder sell."


Even so, many hope that now Haiti finally has the world's attention and can make real progress. "We need to think of this as an opportunity for the country to rebuild," says the World Bank's Mr. Cedeno.

While it is premature to expect the quake will create a sense of solidarity among Haitians - as the tsunami did in Indonesia - the arrival of 3,500 U.S. soldiers to bolster the existing UN peacekeeping force at least increases the likelihood of relative calm during the rebuilding. "As long as we have strong government support for the next five years, Haiti will be back," says Mr. Sinclair, the architect. "If we don't, people will give up and it will take a generation."

Despite that warning, he, like many aid workers, is an optimist, and believes Port-au-Prince and other parts of Haiti will emerge as better, safer places to live. But the pain right now is raw and real, and the payoff is years away, if it comes at all. To those now suffering, the promise of a better future may seem a small consolation.

Mark MacKinnon is a Globe and Mail correspondent.


The problem: Walls come tumbling down

Fear of earthquakes is omnipresent among Peruvians because of the damage they do, and the 7.9-magnitude quake that hit the region south of Lima on Aug. 15, 2007, destroyed or seriously damaged 76,000 homes, 64,000 of them in towns.

Especially in rural Peru, earth has always been the dominant construction material - it insulates against the cold and the wind, it is durable and it allows people to build their own homes as the raw material is generally available.

Adobe construction can be highly resistant to earthquakes, if done properly and then well maintained. In recent years, however, many homes have been built without regard to ancient techniques. Adobe walls that used to be thick and based on good foundations have become thinner and much less able to withstand shaking.

Each earthquake does some damage to a building, and if repairs are not done correctly, the next tremor will cause more, and eventually the structure will crumble.

The solution: Give ancient methods a modern twist

To rectify the situation, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru has led a campaign to teach improved adobe construction as a basis for reconstruction. The university developed innovative and low-cost methods of repairing cracks in adobe walls that it hoped would revolutionize long-term maintenance.

The thickness-to-height ratio of the walls is kept low, foundations and footings are made of concrete, a tie beam at the top supports the roof and all walls are "packed" into a plastic mesh.

Then standard clay and lime plaster is applied over the netting, and the earthquake resistance of the building should be greatly improved.

Inspection after the most recent tremors showed that houses built according to the improved standards survived with no more than very minor damage.

Source: EcoSouth, the Network for an Ecologically and Economically Sustainable Habitat


Darcey Donovan, a civil-engineering graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, has designed a 14-by-14-foot straw house, with a gravel foundation and plaster walls, that is being built to replace the homes destroyed when northern Pakistan was hit by a quake in October, 2005.

When tested last year, it withstood twice the shaking recorded during the 1994 California quake that holds the world record for ground acceleration A locally made compression mould and manually operated farm jack are used make bales that are two feet long by one foot wide and high.

How it's done

The straw for the bales should be long, dry and free of mould or discoloration.

1. Prepare two 8-foot-long double strands of twine with a double loop at one end.

2. Place loops over hooks at top rear of mould, run rope down the inside of rear panel, feed through holes and around pipe at bottom rear, run excess straight out front through slots.

3. Place straw bundles in bottom of mould to hold twine in place. Close door.

4. Fill compressor with straw bundles to top of door. With another person holding the mould steady from the rear, climb on top of the mould from the front and tamp the straw down with feet. Repeat. Top off with straw bundles to top of door.

5. Remove rear pipe, unhook twine loops and place over top of straw with loops toward door.

6. Position plate, jack and beam. Compress.

7. Open door, pull bottom end of rope until tight. Tie tightly.

8. Release jack and remove bale, which should weigh about 8 kilos and be kept dry.

Source: Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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