Rebar!

News from Haiti is heartbreaking. It brings to stark relief the capricious tragedy meted out to those afflicted by the most persistent and awful pestilence to afflict humanity: poverty. Poverty’s fate is extreme vulnerability made worse by invisibility. People who aren’t also consumers don’t matter enough to receive the benefits and protections our human world otherwise has to offer in the 21st century. The advances of the modern world don’t seem so great when the images and stories from Haiti this very morning reveal their vile discrimination.

Most of the deaths in Haiti were senseless. Tens of thousands of lives were lost simply for lack of rebar. Most of the buildings would not havecollapsed nearly so completely had the concrete only been reinforced with skinny little bars of steel. For want of rebar! Any first year engineering student could have told you exactly what would happento those buildings in the event of an earthquake. It’s not a guess anymore; there’s plenty enough science and deadly hard evidence to know it as a promise.

It is wonderful that the world has responded to the emergency in Haiti with such compassion and urgency. Hundreds of millions of dollars are now being spent by dozens of countries in attempt to bring assistance–albeit late–to those victimized by this awful crisis.

But somebody, somewhere, is surely calculating how infinitesimally less it would have cost us to provide Haitians with free rebar and pictorial instruction pamphlets about how to use them. We could have given them away with the only requirement being the institution of a basic structural building code. In comparison to what we are doing today, thiswould have been easy and cheap. But their poverty didn’t move us to actuntil the result of it caused their bodies to pile up like cordwood on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Rebar!

All this grim news is a reminder that good quality homes are one of greatest of advancements of our civilization and should never be taken for granted. It’s also a reminder that the good quality that matters most is in the building shell and structure, not in its amenities and superficialities. Did you see the photos of the Haitian Presidental Palace before and after the earthquake? It’s shining extravagance was clearly about pomp and illusion. Attention to construction detail wasn’tmuch more than skin deep. When veneered quality matters more than substance, someday there will be a price to pay, as the pancaked rubble of the Presidential Palace made so obvious.

I cry today for the Haitians. At the very least, its lessons give me renewed resolve to never compromise building substance for superficialities. The fundamental purpose of home is a secure place to be in a sometimes hostile world. Our core mission as builders is to havethe knowledge, skills, and integrity to first provide the fundamental secure structure. On a day sometime in the future, for a reason we can’tknow with certainty, building well could be the difference between lifeand death. Ask any Haitian.

Next day update:

Emotion affected my quick entry and I failed to give references for my lack of rebar assertion and its impact on lives lost.

The first came from Joel Aschenbach of the Washington Post who, like me,noticed that the fallen buildings revealed very little evidence of reinforcement in the concrete. This is from a post in his Achenblog,with my highlights:

Obviously the U.S. will send aid and relief workers, but we should do more than that: For a small fraction of what the United Statesis spending to bail out banks and auto firms we could help Haiti rebuild with reinforced concrete. Because that’s what I keep thinking when I look at these awful pictures coming from Haiti: Where’s the rebar? It’s like the lack of mosquito nets in malarial Africa: Sucha simple thing, and it would save so many lives. This is the 21st century — and yet people around the world are living and working in buildings that are certain to crumble when the earth moves.

When I was doing research on earthquakes a few years ago, a geologist told me: “Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings kill people.” Meaningthat these natural disasters aren’t purely natural. The planet’s crust is shattered by faults, and if you live near one, particularly one that is predicted to break in the near future, you need to live in reinforcedstructures so that the roof doesn’t fall on your head.

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on January 14, amplified Achenbach’s point with a real-world example:

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people (now closer to 150,000. TB) have died.

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings

Well reinforced buildings don’t necessarily survive magnitude 7.0 earthquakes, but they do greatly increase the chances that the building occupants can survive. It’s similar to the materials and methods we employ to prevent fire spread in buildings. The purpose is primarily to save lives in the event of fire. The building is a secondary consideration. With that in mind, even a minimal rebar schedule in many cases would have saved scores of lives, even when the buildings themselves might have been demolished.

A CNN reporter mentioned that looters were seen stealing rebar from the rubble because it’s so valuable down there. They know about the reasons for it; they just can’t afford it.

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