The University of Texas at Austin
  • Students, faculty travel to Haiti to assess damage

    By Cockrell School of Engineering
    Cockrell School of Engineering
    Published: Feb. 22, 2010

    NEW: Watch civil engineering Professor Ellen Rathje’s interview with FOX’s Shepard Smith about the recent massive quakes in Chile and Haiti at the Fox News site.


    After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the children of the Louverture Cleary School were too scared to return to their classrooms and dorms. Days had passed and they were still sleeping outside, fearful that an aftershock or tremor would collapse the buildings around them.

    Patrick Moynihan, the school’s director, sought help from Dr. Wassim Ghannoum, an assistant professor in civil engineering here at UT. Moynihan e-mailed photos of the buildings to Ghannoum so he could make a preliminary determination of their safety. Ghannoum, whose research focuses on earthquake engineering and the collapse of reinforced concrete structures, judged the school’s buildings safe enough to use, pending further inspection.

    But the children were still too frightened to return indoors.

    Help was soon on the way, however, as a group of engineers, including Ghannoum, headed to Haiti. This relief effort, under mandate from the United Nations, was mounted by the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group and the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, organizations which had appealed for structural engineers fluent in French to go to Haiti and assess the safety of key surviving buildings.

    Upon arriving in Port-au-Prince, they met school representatives and proceeded to the site.

    Wassim Ghannoum (right), a native of Lebanon, found that the destruction he observed in Haiti, far exceeded the damage he experienced from years of civil war in his home country“We inspected all the school’s buildings that evening before we could stay in them, and then we stayed in their worst building,” Ghannoum said.”We did this to reassure the students, many of whom had lost family members, that it was safe to go back in the buildings. That night they all slept inside and even though we had a minor aftershock the children did not panic.”

    That was the beginning of a week-long effort by a team of 10, which included both engineers with earthquake expertise as well as Haitian-born engineers familiar with local logistics. Using standards set by the Applied Technology Council, they spent 10-30 minutes performing initial evaluations of about 115 buildings, labeling them green (safe), yellow (safe with restrictions) or red (unsafe).

    Continue reading about the group’s assessment of the earthquake’s devastation and view more photos.

    In the top photo: Members of Ellen Rathje‘s Geo-engineering Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) team observe the depths of the cracks created by the earthquake near the wharf. Rathje, a civil engineering professor with the Cockrell School of Engineering, led a team of engineers and scientists who examined the damaged areas to understand the relationship between the area’s geology and the damage wrought by the quake.

    In the bottom photo: Wassim Ghannoum (right), a native of Lebanon, found that the destruction he observed in Haiti, far exceeded the damage he experienced from years of civil war in his home country.

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