February 12, 2010

A long-term plan for engineers in Haiti: E4C talks with AIDG’s Stephen Lee

Every day, more than 1,000 refugees arrive by the busload in Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest port city. Nearly all of them have made the 80-mile journey from earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince. As the tide of newly homeless grows, aid workers worry that it will overwhelm the cities near the capital.

That is a problem the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group had foreseen. AIDG engineers small-scale solutions for such needs as sustainable energy and sanitation, and the group is concerned about overloading Cap Hatien’s already-fragile infrastructure.

“There is no UN agency charged to deal with engineering issues before and after disasters in the same way that, say, the World Food Program or the World Health Organization deal with food and health respectively,” wrote AIDG deputy director Cat Lainé in a challenging article called “10 things I learned from being in Haiti during the earthquake.”

AIDG tries to fill that void.

I spoke with the group’s director of operations, Stephen Lee, after he returned from Haiti. He visited the country the week after the quake had struck, and he managed volunteers and supply shipments through the Dominican Republic. These are the highlights our conversation:

RG: You were there shortly after the earthquake struck. What did you see that you want to share?

SL: Everyone has seen the images coming out of Port-au-Prince and everyone has heard the stories, so I don’t think I can add to the visualization of that. Instead, I’d like to steer the conversation away from the suffering in the capital. I think there will be another crisis, another wave of problems, if you consider the millions of people who have been displaced by the earthquake and who are moving to other areas.

We work in Cap Haitien, the second largest city in Haiti and a natural place for people to migrate. We’ve seen thousands of people coming in on buses. Some of the surveys that we’ve done at the bus stations – definitely over a thousand per day are coming in.

Obviously, the attention has been focused on Port-au-Prince and that’s where the greatest need was, but there needs to be just as much attention given to people who have been displaced. That’s why we’ve been closely monitoring the towns outside of Port-au-Prince. They won’t be able to absorb the people coming into them, and we need to do some immediate planning before it’s too late.

RG: How will you respond to that coming crisis?

SL: AIDG is gearing our mid- to long-term response towards making sure that we can support the needs of all the displaced people that we’re anticipating. That’s going to happen in a couple of phases.

Right now, we’re working with partners to provide cook stoves and other solutions around energy and water and sanitation. We’re trying to get some of these solutions to the people who are going to need them as soon as possible.

In the mid- to long-term, we’ll be investing in the local capacity to provide services like energy, water, and sanitation.

To that end, we’re partnering with other groups. For example, we’ve been working with Architecture for Humanity to develop a reconstruction plan. As part of that, we’ll emphasize the need for cheap, earthquake-resistant housing.

RG: How can the Engineering for Change community help?

SL: That’s the kind of community that we really want to connect with. And there’s an incredible amount of opportunities for people to get involved.

From an engineering standpoint, one of our responses has been to reach out to our network of engineers, to people who have specialized earthquake experience – structural engineers, for example – to get them into Haiti and get them on the ground to evaluate key structures like public buildings, schools, hospitals, orphanages and food warehouses. There’s a list of thousands of these buildings.

RG: Buildings that were destroyed?

SL: The things that have been destroyed are destroyed. The need is to look at the things that are still standing. They cannot be used until they’re evaluated to ensure that they’re not on the verge of collapse. Buildings like hospitals – they won’t let the patients back inside until teams of engineers sign off on buildings and say, ‘Hey, this is okay.’

We’ve been partnering with the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, MCEER, at the University of Buffalo in New York. Engineers that they pull from their community work with engineers from our community. We’ve been fortunate to be able to pull Haitian engineers from the Haitian diaspora,people who left Haiti to study engineering or pursue careers in the States.

That’s an ongoing project. We’ve committed to doing it for the next several months. Right now, we’re focusing on structural engineers and other earthquake specialists. Later, as the needs on the ground shift and we go beyond buildings to water, sanitation, and other things, we’re prepared to pull in whatever other specialists we need to support other types of infrastructure.

RG: AIDG isn’t large, but it sounds like you have a lot of resources available. Is that the case?

SL: We’re not large. We’re fortunate that we did have an on-the-ground presence in Haiti. We already had a lot of contacts despite being a smaller organization. We served as a hub for coordinating volunteers, getting in supplies, and doing a lot of advocacy to create a flow of information and resources. As we move from emergency response to long-term reconstruction, there’s definitely going to be a lot of support needed both for AIDG and for some of the key partners that we are or will be working with.

We’ve been able to do a lot by relying on volunteers. I’m confident that we’ll continue to pull in volunteers and professionals and interns to help us out. As we look at our longer term response, we’ll have a greater sense of what those needs will be.

RG: Parting thoughts?

SL: We’re very happy that there’s a lot of attention on Haiti right now, and we’re hoping that these efforts can be coordinated in a good way. It’s a shame that it took an event like this to get the world’s attention. I’m hoping that people are focused on Haiti and I hope people are sincere about the commitments they’re making. It’s going to be a long-term effort. The folks who are committing their help really need to be in it for the long haul.

AIDG dedicated an email address to coordinate incoming volunteers. Those interested can write to helphaiti@aidg.org.

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